Is It Stress or Anxiety? What's the Difference?

Everyone has experienced stress or anxiety at some point in their lives. The meaning of the term “stress” crosses the disciplines of medicine, psychology, and popular parlance. Generally, it is understood that under stress we are in a state in which increased environmental stimulation results in altered functioning. Stress in the body can be observed by an increased pulse and rate of respiration. Not uncommonly, stress is accompanied by stomach problems, headaches, muscle aches and irritability. Anxiety is related to stress and, in some instances, might be a product of stress. Anxiety and stress can cause similar physical symptoms.

Similarities of Stress and Anxiety

As previously noted, some of the physiological symptoms of stress and anxiety are the same, and can include increased heart rate, faster breathing and sweating. Also, stress and anxiety can both lead to physical manifestations like tension or pain in the stomach, shoulders, or head. Both may occur in reaction to an upcoming event or may be a chronic condition.

A little stress or anxiety may be beneficial. Both are designed to prepare us for a situation that requires heightened senses and muscle output. However, both conditions can be very destructive to the body if frequently recurring or prolonged. Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to reduced functioning of the immune system, among other problems.

Acute stress can result from a sudden, traumatic situation such as a car accident or a relative undergoing a surgery. Acute anxiety can be precipitated by anticipating an upcoming event such as interviewing for a job, taking a test or speaking in public. While both acute stress and anxiety may be uncomfortable, they usually have no long-lasting effects.

Stress and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. Stress can lead to anxiety. Anxiety can lead to stress. A situation that causes stress may also induce anxiety.

Because some of the symptoms of stress and anxiety are the same, talking with a counselor might help clarify your mental state and the source of your issues.

Differences Between Stress and Anxiety

Stress usually occurs in response to a real-time situation: pressure at work, tension in a relationship, etc. Anxiety is often in response to a perceived or upcoming event. Thus, stress tends to be associated with frustration and anxiety tends to be associated with worry.

Stress can produce a depressed state. A person’s activity level may decrease. They may feel “bogged down,” and have little energy. Anxiety can produce an agitated state. The person’s activity may increase. A person with anxiety may fidget or not be able to sit still.

In daily life, it may seem more acceptable to have stress than anxiety. It’s not uncommon for someone to say they are “stressed out.” It is rare to hear anyone say, “I have so much anxiety.” Stress is often associated with a busy or important person. Anxiety, because it is fear based, can be perceived as a weakness. Possibly because of this perception, someone with anxiety is more likely to seek help than someone with stress.

Understanding Anxiety Versus Stress

Anxiety: According to Anxiety Disorders Association of America, anxiety is the most common illness in the U.S., affecting 18% of the adult population. Anxiety disorder is characterized by long term fears and feelings of impending doom, often “free floating,” meaning the fears are related to nothing in particular. A number of syndromes are included under the “anxiety disorder” umbrella including panic disorder, agoraphobia and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Counseling might help a person suffering from anxiety identify real versus imagined threats.

Stress: In contrast to anxiety disorder, chronic stress may be in response to a situation more than a specific event: a dysfunctional family, a prolonged illness in the client or a loved one, a detestable job. These situations are often difficult to alter and the unrelenting demands grind down the person’s sense of hope and personal power. Chronic stress is difficult to treat and can lead to serious physical conditions that increase the likelihood of stroke, heart disease and cancer.

Counseling might help a person suffering from stress identify choices and prioritize activities.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a certain type of chronic stress. It arises from an extreme trauma, such as a catastrophic event. The patient feels numb and detached and often relives the traumatic event. Although some of the physical symptoms are the same as those for chronic stress, there are some differences in behavior and treatment.

Managing Anxiety and Stress

Symptoms of both stress and anxiety can be improved with activities that calm the central nervous system, such as meditation, yoga, hot baths, relaxing music and guided visualization. There are several antianxiety medications available by prescription that may be helpful, such as Xanax and Valium. Drugs tend to be less effective in treating chronic stress, but the drugs prescribed are more likely to be antidepressants, such as Celexa or Prozac.

Comparison of Stress and Anxiety

Stress

  • feelings of anger and frustration
  • increased heart rate, respiration
  • small amounts may be positive
  • treatment may include meditation, yoga, visualization
  • can be short term or long term
  • long-term stress difficult to treat

Anxiety

  • feelings of worry and fear
  • increased heart rate, respiration
  • small amounts may be positive
  • treatment may include meditation, yoga, visualization
  • an be short-term or long-term
  • long-term anxiety relatively easy to treat

For both stress and anxiety, it is best to reach out to a support system that includes family, friends, professional counselors and medical personnel when symptoms first occur. Patients respond best when each of these conditions is addressed early.

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