5 Ways to Tell the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety: When to Get Help

Anxiety and stress can both cause major mental and physical health issues. Both are normal responses and emotions, and either one can become unmanageable, requiring professional support. Understand the differences between the two, what distinguishes problematic from normal stress and worry, and what you can do to find relief.

Stress and anxiety are not abnormal feelings or reactions. We all experience these at times and to varying degrees. Either can become overwhelming and disruptive to your life, and yet there are important differences. Most notable is that anxiety can be a specific mental illness, a type of anxiety disorder. Regardless of whether your struggles are related to stress, anxiety, or both, it is important to know when to get professional help. Treatment can help you manage your emotions and reactions, reducing stress and anxiety in your life.

What Is Stress?

Stress is a perfectly normal response of the body to some type of change, demand, or threat. The response can have a physical, emotional, or mental component. Everyone experiences some degree of stress in their lives. Each person may respond differently to stressors, some reacting more intensely or frequently than others. Potential stressors, which can be one-time or ongoing, include:

  • Pressure from responsibilities at home, work, or school
  • Financial problems
  • Being very busy
  • A major or sudden change, like a divorce, death, or loss of a job
  • A traumatic experience, such as abuse or a car accident

Stress can be both good and bad. Good stress motivates you to accomplish tasks, to do them well, and to concentrate on activities. Overwhelming and chronic stress is not good for mental or physical health. When stress persists it can cause depression, physical pain, difficulty sleeping, digestive issues, isolation, changes in diet and weight, and even heart disease.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is also normal. It is a feeling of fear, worry, or nervousness. You might get anxious before a big test, for instance, worried that you won’t do well. Stress and anxiety often go together, with stressful events or experiences triggering feelings of anxiety.

When anxiety becomes problematic is when it is out of control and impacts your life in significantly negative ways. Excessive anxiety can cause similar issues as chronic stress: emotional distress and physical symptoms. High anxiety or an anxiety disorder may prevent you from doing things, like meeting up with friends, going to work, or trying something new.

Am I Experiencing Stress or Anxiety?

Chances are that you are probably experiencing a little bit of both, but one may be more overwhelming. Here are some signs that can help you distinguish between anxiety and stress:

  1. Stress is mostly external. While you can cause yourself stress through negative self-talk, a pessimistic attitude, or a sense of perfectionism, it is usually triggered by something external. Too many responsibilities or a high-stakes work project trigger a stress response. Anxiety, on the other hand, is more internal. It is how you react to stressors. If you remove those stressors and still feel overwhelmed and distressed, you are likely dealing with anxiety.
  2. Anxiety is an excessive reaction to a given situation. Certain situations are stressful, and would be for anyone, such as dealing with arrangements for the death of a loved one. Anxiety is more of an outsized reaction. If the worry and distress you feel in a given situation is unusual, excessive, or goes well beyond the reactions of other people, it may be anxiety rather than stress.
  3. Anxiety can cause you to be unable to function. Most stressful situations are difficult to get through but are ultimately manageable. Anxiety disorders can leave you completely unable to manage normal, everyday tasks. If you are distressed to the point of being unable to work or of having a panic attack, an anxiety disorder may be the underlying issue.
  4. Anxiety causes feelings of dread and fear of things that haven’t happened or don’t exist. Stress is a response to something happening or a pressure you feel. Anxiety can be completely internal and not a reaction to anything that exists in reality. For instance, with an anxiety disorder you may feel a general sense of apprehension, dread, and worry, even when there is nothing coming up that should cause you to be concerned.
  5. Specific symptoms may signify an anxiety disorder. If you have certain, specific symptoms, these may indicate you have an anxiety disorder or at least that your issue is beyond simple stress. For example, panic attacks are characteristic of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder. High levels of stress and anxiety in social situations may indicate a social anxiety disorder.

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Stress, Anxiety, Whatever: Do I Need Professional Help?

While stress and anxiety are normal emotions and reactions, they can become outsized. If stress or worry overwhelm you, take over your life, and prevent you from functioning, you could benefit from some professional therapy and treatment. Here are some more specific signs that anxiety or stress has gotten out of control in your life:

  • Stress or anxiety interfere with important parts of your life, including relationships, work, school, and responsibilities.
  • The reactions and emotions you feel are overwhelming, cause you significant distress, or are difficult or impossible to control and lessen.
  • You also have physical health problems that may be related to stress and anxiety.
  • There are other mental health issues going on, either triggered by or simply occurring at the same time as stress or worry. These could include depression, substance abuse, or anything else that concerns you.
  • You experienced something traumatic, either in your past or recently.
  • Your stress or anxiety is leading to thoughts of self-harm, hopelessness, or suicide.

Treatment for excessive stress or an anxiety disorder is available and is highly effective. You may benefit from medical care to manage any underlying illnesses or for complications caused by stress. Therapy can teach you useful strategies for managing stress, for coping with stress and anxiety, and for changing your patterns of thought and behavior that worsen mental health.

One of the best things therapy can do for you, whether or not you get diagnosed with an actual mental illness, is give you the tools you need to practice good mental health. Take these tools and use them to minimize stress in your life, manage stress as it does arise, and relax when anxiety threatens to overwhelm you.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with bipolar disorder and other mental health issues and co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.