Sunday night going on Monday morning? Maybe there’s a presentation, and you’re stressed out, or perhaps a family member is coming into town, and you need to clean the house. What’s that you’re feeling? More than likely, it’s stress, which is a natural part of life, but you might wonder the difference between stress and anxiety. Although both are very common in life, stress isn’t a medical condition, while anxiety can be serious.

Both stress and anxiety are a fight or flight response to danger, and the purpose is to ensure someone is focused, alert, and ready to deal with the potential threat. Despite them being normal, it’s common to overwhelm someone.

Stress hormones cause our hearts to beat fast, which results in blood pumping to the limbs and organs. The response gives a person the necessary push to either run away or fight what they’re facing. It also causes the individual to breathe faster and increases blood pressure. On that same note, the individual’s senses will become much sharper, and their body releases nutrients into the blood. It does this to ensure all parts have the necessary energy.

In most cases, a person will recognize anxiety as the feeling of unease, dread, or distress before a significant event. It allows them to stay alert and be aware. The fight or flight response will kick in when someone faces an emotional, physical, real, or perceived threat. Despite it being useful, for some, it might interfere with their daily lives.

While the occasional anxiety is to be expected, those who struggle with an anxiety condition can attest to its severity. Anxiety is considered to be the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18.1 percent of the population, or 40 million adults. Despite their treatability, only 36.9 percent of people will get the help they need.

Although stress isn’t a medical condition, enough of it can lead to adverse consequences, like high blood pressure and changes to your digestive system, immune system, and brain. Although stress itself can’t kill you, the damage it causes may lead to premature death. It’s important to understand the symptoms and know the differences between the two so that you get the proper help.

The most common symptoms a person experiencing stress include the following:

  • Anxious thoughts
  • Faster heartbeat
  • Faster breathing
  • Anger, moodiness, or irritability
  • Loneliness
  • General unhappiness
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Nausea
  • Back or neck pain
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Frequent headaches
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Muscle tension
  • Low energy
  • Loss of sexual desire
  • Having trouble quieting the mind
  • Poor concentration
  • Muscle tension
  • Feeling faint, dizzy, or light-headed
  • Dizziness
  • Constipation or diarrhea

Symptoms of stress that you encounter can change and vary over time. Understanding what triggers your stress can help you increase your awareness. Knowing this essential information will help you learn stress reduction techniques when the first signs of stress appear.

The most common symptoms a person experiencing anxiety include the following:

  • Sweating
  • Faster breathing
  • Faster heartbeat
  • A feeling of dread or unease
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Feeling tense
  • Restless restless
  • Feeling nervous

How to Tell the Difference Between Anxiety and Stress

Anxiety and stress tend to elicit similar bodily reactions and have the same type of symptoms, meaning that it’s challenging to distinguish the difference between the two. Stress is typically more short-term and caused by a response to a recognized threat, while anxiety might linger and commonly occurs when nothing triggers it.

Fortunately, anxiety and stress can be managed in several ways, including the following that we’ll discuss below.

  • Stress is mostly external: Although you can cause yourself stress through a pessimistic attitude, or negative self-talk, it’s typically triggered by something external. Having a high-stakes job or taking on too many responsibilities at one time can also trigger a stress response. Anxiety, however, is primarily internal. It’s how you react to stress, and if you remove the stress but still feel distressed and overwhelmed, you’re likely dealing with anxiety, not just stress.
  • Anxiety is an excessive reaction to a situation: Everyone can agree that certain situations are stressful, like dealing with the death of a loved one or meeting a deadline that could be the difference between keeping your job or losing it. However, anxiety is an outsized reaction. If the distress and worry you feel in a specific situation is excessive, unusual, or goes beyond the reactions another person might face, it’s likely anxiety rather than stress.
  • Anxiety can make it so you can’t function: Most stressful situations are challenging to overcome but can be managed. Anxiety disorders may leave you entirely unable to manage daily tasks. If you’re distressed to the point where you can’t work because you’ll have a panic attack, you’re likely dealing with an anxiety disorder as an underlying condition. When your anxiety is causing the quality of your life to deteriorate, it may be time to seek help.
  • Anxiety will cause you to feel dread or fear for things that haven’t happened: Stress is a natural response to something terrible that’s happening, but anxiety is entirely internal and not a reaction to something that exists in reality. For example, someone with an anxiety disorder will have a general sense of dread, worry, or apprehension, even when nothing happens, which should warrant concern.
  • Specific symptoms may indicate you have an anxiety disorder: If there are specific symptoms you’re experiencing, it’s likely an indicator that you have an anxiety disorder or that your issues are beyond stress. Panic attacks can indicate panic disorder, which is a type of anxiety disorder. High levels of anxiety and stress in social situations can signify you have a social anxiety disorder.

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The primary features that make up generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are excessive worry and anxiety that occurs more days than not for six months or more. The intensity of worry or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual impact of the anticipated event. For example, going to work in the morning is likely to cause some dread in some people, but a person suffering an anxiety disorder will react much worse and feel like they’re losing control in what isn’t a big deal to someone else.

Other symptoms that stem from generalized anxiety disorder include the following:

  • Restlessness or always feeling like you’re on edge
  • Inability to control worry
  • Irritability
  • Easily fatigued
  • Inability to concentrate or allow your mind to go blank
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Muscle tension
  • Psychosomatic symptoms that including stomach aches, headaches, pins and needles, and dizziness
  • Physical symptoms that include rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, excessive sweating, chest pain, and shortness of breath
  • Worry, anxiety, or physical symptoms that cause clinically significant distress or impairment in occupational, social, or other areas of functioning

Am I Experiencing Stress or Anxiety?

It’s possible that you’re experiencing a bit of both, but one could be more overwhelming than the other.

Relaxation Strategies

Relaxation strategies are effective in helping people cope with their anxiety or stress that don’t want to use medication. These strategies include:

  • Focusing on soothing words like “calm” or “peace.”
  • Visualizing a scene that’s tranquil, such as being on the beach or in a meadow
  • Learning how to focus on breathing and learning breathing exercises
  • Practicing tai chi
  • Practicing yoga
  • Taking breaths and counting to ten



Physical activity is an ideal option for those looking to combat stressful situations. It can be something simple like taking your pet for a walk, taking your bike out for a ride around the neighborhood, or going for a run around the block. The fluid motion of activities like yoga or going to the gym help restore a sense of calm.

Talking About It

Talking about your worries can help ease stress. It doesn’t matter if it’s in person, face to face, or online, but talking to friends, partners, or family members they trust will help them find balance. Sometimes you need to accept that you can’t control everything and settle for your best rather than aiming for perfection.

If stress or anxiety has diminished the quality of your life, it might be time to reach out for help. A medical professional can help determine what you’re going through and offer the proper support, which could mean psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.

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