Stress Versus Anxiety: How To Tell The Difference

Stress and anxiety are common problems in the United States, affecting people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. The American Institute of Stress states that 55% of people in the United States are stressed during the day. Chronic stress has also been linked to various physical and mental health problems, including anxiety, says the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety issues occur in about 31.1% of adults in the United States at some point in life. Anxiety can significantly impact daily life, affecting work performance, relationships, and overall well-being, per the American Psychiatric Association. Despite the high prevalence of anxiety disorders, many people do not seek treatment. Only about 36% of those with an anxiety disorder receive treatment in a given year, per the Children's Health Council.

Stress and anxiety are similar experiences in some ways, but they are not the same. Understanding the difference between stress and anxiety can help you identify what you are experiencing and take steps to manage it.

What are stress and anxiety?

Stress is a normal response to challenging situations. When you experience stress, your body responds by activating the "fight or flight" response, a complex set of physical and psychological changes designed to prepare you to respond to challenges (via Cleveland Clinic). The fight or flight response is triggered by the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which cause a series of physiological changes in the body, per the Harvard Medical School.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a more persistent state of worry, in which you might constantly feel nervous or uneasy about something (via the University of Glasgow). It is a normal and often healthy emotion. However, it can become overwhelming or disruptive to daily life when it is excessive or persistent, per WebMD. According to the source, anxiety can take many forms, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.

How to tell the difference between stress and anxiety

One way to tell the difference between stress and anxiety is to consider the duration of your symptoms. Stress is generally a response to a specific stressor, which can be short-term or long-term, says the American Psychological Association (APA). On the other hand, anxiety is a long-term condition that persists even without stressors, says the association. According to the source, although not entirely the same, anxiety leads to similar symptoms as stress. 

Symptoms of anxiety and stress include persistent worry or fear, as well as physical symptoms like increased heart rate and sweating, fast breathing, muscle tension, and difficulty sleeping, says Healthline. Some individuals may experience symptoms of anxiety or stress that persist for an extended period. In that case, it may be helpful to speak with a mental health professional for an accurate diagnosis, and an appropriate treatment plan catered to your individual needs.