August 1, 2022

Are Stress and Anxiety the Same? Understanding the Difference

Written by Rachel Eddins

common stress and anxiety triggers in newspaper cutouts

We live in a high-stress time. Period.

As never before, daily life presents us with non-stop stress potential. A big player in this trend is digital communication.

We’re connected globally. This allows us to know more about what’s going on.

It also creates a greater possibility for us to be manipulated by fake news, half-truths, and alternative facts. Simply put, there is no shame in feeling stressed right now. And, if you do, you are far from alone.

But how can we know whether we’re experiencing stress or anxiety? In casual usage, these words are used interchangeably. In reality, they are not the same thing.

Stress is (Primarily) External

Stress and anxiety are emotional responses. What typically separates them is the source of the trigger. When you feel stressed, almost always, it is due to an external trigger. Even when the trigger appears internal (your inner critic or negative attitude), it is based on an external stressor.

The possibilities are endless, e.g., financial strain, relationship problems, having too much work to do, etc.

Someone struggling with a stressful time period may display symptoms like:

  • Fatigue
  • Stomach issues
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Unexplained muscle pain or tension
  • Anger and irritability
  • Headaches

Anxiety can cause similar symptoms. Outside stressors may also trigger it.

The big difference is that stress ends when the external triggers are removed. On the other hand, anxiety will remain until the underlying internal source is addressed.

hand squeezing yellow happy face stress ball stress and anxiety how to tell the difference

Anxiety is a Diagnosable Mental Health Condition

A stressful situation exists. Understandably, you respond to it. The degree of your reactions to stressors can make apparent the presence of anxiety.

However, with anxiety, the worry, nervousness, or distress is disproportionate—to the point of panic attacks. Sometimes, you find yourself preemptively responding to events that “might” happen or that you expect to happen.

Besides the long list of stress symptoms, someone with anxiety may display signs like:

  • Relentless worrying
  • Apprehension or dread
  • Social isolation or avoidance
  • Sweating, trembling, shaky voice
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unable to concentrate

When things get to the point of panic attacks, anxiety can hamper your ability to handle day-to-day functioning. Even when no obvious stressor exists, simple tasks become daunting and incomprehensible.

Stress Management

Generally speaking, you can manage stress through diligent self-care. You might consider:

  • Mindful meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Yoga
  • Maintaining regular sleep patterns
  • Making healthy eating choices
  • Doing some exercise and physical activity every day
  • Visualization
  • Aromatherapy
  • Listening to relaxing music
  • Go out of your way to find reasons to laugh

If your stress triggers are long-term, it can be quite beneficial to meet with a therapist on a regular basis.

black men quietly meditating dealing with stress and anxiety

Addressing Anxiety

Anxiety is the most common mental health issue on the planet. The good news is that many effective treatments exist. All of the above relaxation techniques can help you manage symptoms while you pursue treatment. A couple of other anxiety self-help options include:

  • Talking back to your inner critic: Anxiety is an accomplished liar. You do not have to believe its stories. Do some fact-checking before allowing things to spiral.
  • Keep a journal: Monitor your triggers. Keep track of what methods work for you in terms of self-soothing. This journal will be useful in therapy.
  • Find an in-person or online group: It can be powerful to discover how many others feel what you feel. You get to share ideas and self-help techniques. Helping others is always a great way to reduce the impact of an anxiety disorder.

If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or both, let’s set up a free and confidential consultation to get you started on the path to healing.

Anxious & Don’t Know Why? Consider These Common Causes

Everyone—I mean, everyone —feels anxious at times. The reasons can be real or imagined or some combination of both. Basically, anxiety is normal… until it’s not. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue on the planet. They occur when a person gets “stuck” in a cycle that makes it hard to distinguish between real and perceived dangers.

Anxiety disorders manifest in a variety of ways. You may have already heard of Generalized Anxiety or Social Anxiety. However, for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on possible causes. The better you understand this problem, the more effectively you can manage it.

What Causes Anxiety?

Before we get to the list below, let’s briefly discuss two important factors. There are some inherent traits that can play a role. If there’s a history of anxiety (or other mental health issues) in your family, there can be an increased likelihood that you’ll struggle with an anxiety disorder.

In addition, certain personality characteristics also seem to make anxiety more common. Such characteristics include:

  • Shyness or timidity
  • Low self-esteem
  • A need to control
  • Easily startled or made upset
  • Perfectionism

So, keep these factors in mind as we explore some other potential causes.

white woman sitting on couch dealing with stress and anxiety

5 Common Causes of Anxiety and Anxious Feelings

1. Stress and Tension

This may seem like a catch-all reason, but stress does indeed cause a multitude of problems. Feeling anxious when stressed is common. Staying anxious when the stress continues or builds is an issue. Like anxiety, stress is a natural response. Also, like anxiety, chronic stress is a red flag.

Running parallel to the stress is a close relative: tension. The stress may be caused by relationship issues. The tension is thus caused by the stress. All of this often adds up to high levels of ongoing anxiety. Side note: Both stress and tension can also result in physical conditions that, in turn, serve to ramp up your anxiety (see #2).

Read more: Ways to Relieve Stress and Build Resilience

2. Physical Health Problems

No one likes when they don’t feel well. Physical illnesses have the potential to create mental strain. In particular, chronic conditions—e.g., heart disease, diabetes, etc.—have been found to exacerbate anxiety disorders.

3. Worry and Fear

Fear is a response designed to protect. Worry is a less intense warning that can result in fear. These two reactions can meld together in the presence of an anxiety disorder. You fixate and worry about past performances and future expectations. This relentless worrying can transform into irrational but very strong fears like a fear of flying or a fear of leaving the house. The cycle continues and strengthens when you further worry about such fears.

4. Shame

This cause ties into the personality traits discussed above. If you are someone who is highly self-critical and pursues perfection, even a hint of a mistake can feel shameful. A person in this state becomes quite susceptible to anxiety. If they see themselves as always failing, they can grow anxious about ever getting better.

5. Identity Crises

One minute, you know what you feel, think, and value. Then, in a flash, you’re dwelling in angst. At different points in your life, you may struggle to comprehend your own purpose or mission. Agonizing over where you fit into this world is a rite of passage. Yet, it can also linger and disrupt your life. In cases like this, the almost inevitable outcome is a whole lot of anxiety.

Anxiety is a normal, inevitable emotion. It has the potential to save your life when true dangers arise.

Yet, more commonly, it has the potential to make your life uncomfortable when the danger is not quite so imminent. Do you feel nervous, worried, and sometimes out of control? Physical symptoms can include light-headedness, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, and more. In chronic instances, all of this may indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder.

However, even when a disorder is not diagnosed, unchecked anxiety can feel unbearable. The support of a therapist is ideal, yet, in the meantime, there is no reason to see yourself as powerless. Let’s explore a few possible ways to find relief.

5 Everyday Ways to Cope When Anxiety Gets In Your Way

1. Examine Your Thought Patterns and Listen to Your Inner Voice

Anxiety is a talented liar. It can get you to believe all sorts of unhelpful ideas. Sometimes this is an attempt to protect you. Often, this gets in your way. Regardless, you have the power to fact-check the stories that anxiety tells you.

So, when anxiety distorts reality, you can explore before reacting.

  • Are these negative thoughts based on any evidence?
  • Am I in a dangerous or risky situation?

Questions like these can derail an anxious spiral before it begins.

2. Take Regular Tech/Device Breaks

That phone in your pocket is a powerful anxiety generator. Sure, it can often be of value. However, more often than not, we use it compulsively. Try to be far more mindful when using anything with a screen (phone, computer, TV, tablet, etc.)

3. Practice Diligent and Daily Self-Care

Your mind and body thrive when given daily attention. Getting yourself into a daily routine of self-care will dull the impact of anxiety in multiple ways. Some elements to consider:

4. Keep a Journal

The act of writing — as in old-school pen and paper — has been shown to offer relief from anxious thoughts. Still… what would you write in your journals? A few suggestions:

  • Write Down Your Thoughts: Those anxious thoughts are more easily exposed and challenged when you see them in print.
  • List Triggers and Solutions: Keep track of what causes you to feel anxiety. Keep track of what steps you take that have the power to help.
  • Honor Whatever Makes You Feel Grateful: There’s nothing like a gratitude journal. It’s a daily reminder to stop and take notice of what makes you happy. Counting your blessings is a proven path toward a calm and more mindful perspective.

Read more: Journaling Exercises

5. Help Others

Some clichés exist because they are true. If you want to feel better, do something nice for someone else. Live your life in such a way that you give other people things to list in their gratitude journals!

how to deal with stress and anxiety white man facetiming his therapist on cell phone

Ask For Help You Need

Most importantly, remind yourself that you do not have to find all the answers. Anxiety is a tricky issue and you do not have to go it alone. Yes, by all means, get busy with the self-help. It can be a crucial part of your healing. But there is usually a time when you want to consult with a skilled professional about your anxiety issues.

Your weekly sessions can serve as a workshop of sorts. You get to dig deep into your emotions. Underlying, root causes can be unearthed. New approaches and solutions can be suggested and attempted.

Most importantly, you will learn that there’s no shame in anxiety and recovery is absolutely possible.

If this sounds right for you, read more about anxiety treatment, and let’s connect for a safe and confidential consultation.

One of our client care coordinators can pair you up with a right fit or best fit therapist in one of our three locations: Houston, Montrose, or Sugar Land.

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