When we are feeling overwhelmed, we may automatically mention how we are feeling stressed or feeling anxious, using the words interchangeably. However, while closely connected with similar symptoms, anxiety and stress are two different things. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “while both are emotional responses, stress is usually caused by external factors.” The stress can be short-term or acute, such as preparing for an exam, an upcoming work deadline, a fight with a friend or partner, and so on. Long-term or chronic stress, on the other hand, is defined as “long lasting stress that occurs in response to an ongoing pressure.” This can be due to consistent financial stress, a demanding job or toxic workplace, or an issue within your family, such as divorce. While these stressors can be negative or positive, we generally focus on the negative and its overall effect on our health.

Anxiety, however, doesn’t always have a specific stressor and is defined as “persistent, excessive worries that doesn’t go away even in the absence of the stressor(s).” Essentially, anxiety is more constant, even if there is no sudden threat, and is generally internal. Despite these differences between stress and anxiety, there is a lot of similarities in regard to symptoms/effects on the body, which can include:

  • Excessive worry
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Muscle tension and/or headaches
  • Digestion issues
  • Finding it difficult to concentrate

Along with the similarity in symptoms, there are also similarities in coping mechanisms and treatments of both extreme stress and anxiety. Some of these techniques are to:

1. Identify stressors. Are there certain things in your life that you have noticed that cause you to experience more stress than usual? Or that have caused you to feel more anxious? While a lot of these reasons may be unavoidable and/or out of your control, such as traffic, an unexpected injury, or an exam, it is still important and useful to identify the source(s).

2. Implement techniques for stress and anxiety. There many different coping techniques that can help to reduce stress and anxiety, including improving your sleep, getting daily exercise (even if it is a walk outside), meditation, limiting caffeine, and/or doing activities that bring you joy and help you relax. Not all of these techniques will work for everyone, such as meditation, which is perfectly fine! It is important to find strategies that work well for you and that you can consistently implement in your daily life.

3. Talk to someone. This could look like a family member, friend, or co-worker, but could also be in the form of a therapist, especially if you find the stress is getting worse or your anxiety is becoming more severe to the point where it can be classified as an anxiety disorder and interfering in many aspects of your life. In that case, it can be especially useful to talk to a mental health professional, who will help you with diagnoses and next steps, such as appropriate treatment options. That being said, even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder or any mental health disorder, therapy can be beneficial to help you identify and keep track of stressors and how to cope with them.

Stress and anxiety, while both very similar with overlapping symptoms, are not the same thing. It is important to know their differences, as this can not only help better identify the whys behind why you feel stressed or anxious, but also to help you figure out the best strategies to help you manage it.

Staff Blogger: Mollie Clupper

Mollie Clupper works for MHA as a Communications and Support Specialist. Using her own experiences, she wants to help bring awareness and end the stigma surrounding mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, drinking coffee, and spending time with loved ones.