What’s The Difference Between Anxiety & Stress? 9 Women & Nonbinary People Share How They’re Affected Differently
Everyone knows that chronic stress is bad for your health, but imagine having to deal with anxiety on top of the normal stressors you encounter at work, in your relationships, or in your day-to-day life. For people with anxiety disorders, telling the difference between stress versus anxiety can be a challenge. Many of symptoms of anxiety and stress overlap, making it hard to manage them accordingly. In fact, it can take some folks years of practice before they're able to discern between symptoms of stress, and symptoms of anxiety.
"The difference between stress and anxiety can be tricky, because they can often feel the same in our bodies and minds," Erica Hornthal, a psychotherapist, and the CEO and Founder of Chicago Dance Therapy, tells Bustle. "Stress is something that everybody encounters, and it often comes from having too much on our plate, or not being able to manage our schedules or expectations. Anxiety is something that affects our daily way of living and impacts our emotional health, relationships, and our ability to cope and manage life," Hornthal explains.
However, knowing what your anxiety looks and feels like, versus how you respond to stress, could be the key to learning how to cope more efficiently with both every day stress and your mental health. Here's how nine women and non-binary folks have learned to distinguish between regular stress, and symptoms of their anxiety.
"My therapist helped me see that my anxiety is rooted deep within, and I carry it with me always. Acknowledging it doesn’t make it go away completely, it only relieves it. When I’m stressed, it’s caused by an actual problem that I can work to solve," Laura Ozuna, the Founder of Chronic Sad Girls Club, explains to Bustle. "To me, that’s the difference: Anxiety is constant work, while stress is temporary."
Lisa, a CNA who has generalized anxiety disorder, says that, for her, there's a "huge difference" between anxiety and stress symptoms. She explains, "Stress is just an annoyance to me, and I usually have a plan and the capability to deal with it."
On the other hand, Lisa explains when she is dealing with anxiety, it feels more unmanageable because her thoughts begin to race. "I can’t even like start doing any tasks I have because I feel stuck. My stomach is tight, and my breathing is heavy," she says. "It’s an overall yucky feeling."
"Anxiety feels like an adrenaline rush and jitters. Stress, on the other hand, feels like I’m bending and about to snap," says Becca, a mental health advocate.
"For me, stress has a tangible cause I can trace back. My anxiety disorder makes stress more impactful, but my anxiety also just shows up even when I 'should' be relaxed," says Sammi, a store clerk and community specialist. "Sometimes I just wake up in a state of quasi-panic and it lasts all day. Stress is manageable by taking care of tasks that are worrying me [...] So I really differentiate between anxiety and stress based on which coping mechanisms works."
Blue, a college student, says for her, "anxiety stems from a fear of what’s going to happen, whereas stress stems from feeling overwhelmed by what’s going to happen."
She adds, "If I’m not sure of the difference, I like to make a list of feelings besides 'anxious' or 'stressed' that apply to the situation. Then I determine if they are more focused on fear, versus just focused on being busy."
"When I get anxious and nothing major is going on in my life, then I know it’s anxiety," says Nicole, a graduate student. "Other times, when I’m stressed and something major is actually going on, it’s much harder to tell if it is anxiety or stress. I think it’s a bit of both."
Julia, a college student, tells Bustle that discerning between anxiety and stress can be challenging for her. "Sometimes, figuring out if I have an external reason like a final exam helps, but even then it's usually a combination of both," she explains.
"My stress and anxiety are absolutely intertwined. Much of my anxiety is triggered by overload, as that’s what a large part of my trauma was entangled with — so, it helps me to separate the two by grounding myself," explains Talia, a museum associate and working artist.
"Take a breath, or find something to ground you. Then ask yourself, 'what am I feeling and what is the best way I can be helped right now?'" they suggest, adding that, "Trying to address ways to help yourself with stress factors aids a lot in combating anxiety as well."
"I know I’m stressed about something when it makes me anxious, and my OCD symptoms flare up. It’s all I can think about, but I try to avoid it so I make myself busy with a whole bunch of stuff that’s not important," explains Abby, a college student. "I get tired easily when I’m stressed, and I focus less on eating a balanced diet (which is usually important to me). When it’s just anxiety, I get listless and wander around, and when I start tasks, it gets really hard to finish them."
Sometimes, differentiating between stress and anxiety may feel next to impossible — especially if you're experiencing both simultaneously, or if your anxiety is triggered by stress. Though it can be difficult, learning how to differentiate between anxiety and stress could help you be better prepared in the future, so you can seek out the appropriate support.