We’ve all had those weeks where it seems like everything needs to get done at once. You know, when your to-do list is a mile long and there isn’t enough time in the day to get it all done. It’s stressful. And stress can take a toll on your health. But what happens when the stress never seems to go away and you find yourself constantly worrying? Is it stress or is it something more?
Knowing the difference between stress and anxiety isn’t always easy, but it’s an important part of emotional self-care. Why? Both stress and anxiety affect a large portion of the population. It’s estimated that approximately 77 percent of people have experienced physical symptoms related to stress and 73 percent have experienced psychological symptoms, according to the American Institute of Stress. Additionally, an estimated 31.1 percent of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their life, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, making it one of the most common mental health issues.
The simplest way to understand anxiety vs. stress is to remember that stress is in response to a specific external “threat” in your environment while anxiety is an internal reaction to the stress you are experiencing, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. To break that down, here are some tips to help you know the difference.
Identify the Source and Timeframe
Stress is usually directly linked to something happening in your environment such as having a new baby, moving, family tension, a jam-packed day, or impending deadlines at work. And because your stress is related to a specific trigger, your symptoms of stress normally go away once the stressor is over with, according to Mental Health First Aid. For example, once your busy day is over, your stress typically disappears, or once you’ve finished moving and have unpacked your boxes, you feel less stressed.
Anxiety, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily tied to a specific trigger or, if it is related to one, the worry tends to be out of proportion to the trigger. Anxiety also differs from stress in that it tends to continue even when the source of the worry has passed, according to Mental Health First Aid. For example, you may find yourself constantly worrying that your boss may fire you at any moment or you may find yourself struggling to fall asleep as you worry about whether or not something you said to a friend sounded rude.
So, if you are wondering whether it’s stress or whether it’s anxiety, try to identify the source of your symptoms. Is there a specific trigger or is it less easy to pin it down? Additionally, does your distress go away once the stressor is no longer a factor or does your distress still stick around?
Know the Symptoms
It can also be helpful to know the difference between the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Some common symptoms of stress include:
- Apathy, lack of energy
- Difficulty making decisions and keeping track of things
- Feeling on edge
- Change in eating patterns
- Sleep issues
- Feeling more emotional than usual
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope
- Chronic back pain or muscle tension
- Tension headaches
- Gastrointestinal issues
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the symptoms of anxiety are often associated with muscle tension and anticipatory worry. These symptoms have to be 1) out of proportion to the situation or age inappropriate (for example, excessively worrying about being financially stable during retirement when you are in college) and 2) hinder your ability to function normally. For example, if you are having trouble sleeping, losing your appetite, or having trouble focusing at work because of worry, it is impacting your social and occupational functioning.
Common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling restless
- Being easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Being irritable
- Having muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Having sleep problems
What to Do
Once you’ve figured out whether it’s stress or anxiety, you can take steps to address your symptoms. (Don’t worry, if you are having trouble discerning what it is, you can always schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or with a therapist who can help.) With stress, you are most likely dealing with shorter-term discomfort and can implement some basic self-care strategies like exercising, reaching out to friends, and creating a calm sleep routine to help.
If you are struggling with anxiety, these self-care practices will likely have some benefit, but you may also want to consider working with a therapist. In therapy your can learn research-supported strategies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to address your anxiety which could be very beneficial given that anxiety is typically a long-term issue.
Whether it is stress or anxiety that you are experiencing, you don’t have to let your symptoms take over your life. Have the courage to address your symptoms, don’t be afraid to reach out for help, and take back control of your life.