Difference Between Anxiety and Stress: How to Tell the “Twins” Apart

By Anna Meyer

August 01, 2023

We all have moments where we feel frazzled and overwhelmed by the demands of our daily lives. Whether it’s caused by school, work, or relationships, we’ve all experienced stress and anxiety at some point. However, most of us tend to mistake one for the other, using the terms interchangeably. But there is a difference between anxiety and stress, and recognizing the difference is crucial to managing them.

Read on so we can show you how to tell these twins apart and how to wrangle them to your advantage and a better quality of life.

Before we jump into how to manage these conditions, let’s first look at what stress and anxiety are and how they differ from each other.


Difference Between Anxiety and Stress

What is stress?

Stress is a natural physical and emotional reaction to a perceived threat or challenge. It is caused by external factors, such as work, financial troubles, relationships, poor health, or traumatic events like a burglary or losing your house in a fire. You might be stressed and not even know it, but your body knows.

Stress triggers what we call a “fight or flight” response in your body, releasing the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones activate the body’s emergency response system, which prepares your body to react to perceived danger. While stress can have detrimental effects on your health, the guidelines on diagnosing chronic stress are vague, since people experience stress differently for different reasons


What is anxiety?

Anxiety, in contrast, is a feeling of fear, apprehension, or worry that is often continuous and persistent, with or with no specific cause or threat. A combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as trauma, chronic stress, or substance abuse, can cause anxiety. Unlike stress, which is tied to a specific event, anxiety is often less logical and can be experienced with no direct cause. If you’re feeling anxiety, you know and your body manifests it in ways you are all too familiar with.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), “Fear is the emotional response to a real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is the anticipation of a future threat”.

Anxiety is also easier to diagnose. There are 11 anxiety disorders as defined by the American Psychiatric Association, with clear diagnostic guidelines for psychologists and other healthcare providers to use. People who have anxiety describe it as a crushing sense of doom that sometimes infiltrates every aspect of their life. Many people living with anxiety report their anxiety being worse in the mornings, which often wakes them long before their alarm goes off.


How do they differ?

The difference between the two is that stress is a response to challenging circumstances that are happening in the present moment, whereas anxiety is often a reaction to stress. While they may have similar symptoms, they manifest themselves differently, and managing them requires different methods.


Signs of Stress and Anxiety

There are many signs that can help you identify whether you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Unfortunately, the common symptoms of stress and anxiety often overlap and cause confusion. However, some specific signs can help in identifying which emotional state you might be experiencing:


Symptoms of Stress

  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Irritability, anger or mood swings
  • Changes in appetite
  • Insomnia or sleep disturbances
  • Chronic pain or headaches
  • Digestive issues or stomach pain
  • Difficulty concentrating or memory issues


Symptoms of Anxiety

  • Restlessness and nervousness
  • Sweating or trembling
  • Panic attacks
  • Fear or dread
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physical symptoms such as aches and pains
  • Avoidance of certain social situations
  • Intrusive thoughts or worries
  • A racing heart
  • Sleep problems, including trouble falling asleep or staying asleep


Looking at the symptoms and causes of each condition will give you a good idea whether you’re suffering from chronic stress or anxiety. However, it’s always best to consult with a doctor for a proper diagnosis.


What Causes Anxiety and Stress?

Future, present, or past events can trigger anxiety, but anxiety disorders are more prevalent in people who have relatives with an anxiety disorder or anyone who has suffered physical or emotional abuse. People who have had tough experiences during their life, but especially as a child, are also more likely to experience anxiety.

Stress, however, doesn’t discriminate or let anyone off the hook. It can be caused by a tough project at work, a strained relationship with your mother-in-law who insists her meat loaf recipe is better, or even positive experiences such as getting married. Unless you didn’t really want to get married, in which case, blink twice if we need to save you.

While anxiety is unpleasant, not all episodes of anxiety are a cause for concern. Feeling anxious when you’re about to ask your crush out on a date, or preparing to tell your husband that you’re finally pregnant after trying for months, is a normal reaction.

If, however, you feel that anxiety has taken over your life and you feel you can no longer function, then it is time for a trip to a psychologist or any medical professional licensed to diagnose and treat anxiety disorders.


How to Deal with Stress and Anxiety: Stress and Anxiety Management to Reduce Your Symptoms

Lifestyle Changes to Cope with Stress

One of the best ways to deal with stress and anxiety is to focus on your overall health. Changing your diet, sleep schedule, and activity level is simple to implement, and an underrated approach to getting stress and anxiety relief. When your body gets adequate sleep, nutrition, and movement, it will be in a better position to deal with any stress and anxiety you may experience. And at minimum will help to prevent your mental health from getting worse.


Relaxation Techniques to Manage Stress and Anxiety

Another great way to ease your anxiety and stress is with relaxation techniques like meditation, breath work, and yoga. Yes, you’ve probably heard everyone and their cat raving about yoga and how good it is for your health. But did you know yoga is effective at reducing stress and anxiety? One study found that yoga was as effective at reducing anxiety and stress as relaxation and more effective at improving mental health. So it makes sense to add yoga with other relaxation techniques in your anti-anxiety routine.

If yoga seems too much to handle in the beginning, you can try box breathing. This method involves breathing in, holding your breath, breathing out, and holding your breathing again, with each phase lasting four seconds. Continue the cycle until you feel your anxiety easing and your body relaxing. Concurrently, this breathing method has physiological benefits that reduce stress and how it is showing up in your body.


Call on your Community – a Buffer for Stress and Anxiety

One important factor we often forget is that we are social creatures. We need socializing for our mental health, and it becomes even more important when we are stressed or anxious. Researchers have been studying a phenomenon called social buffering, which is found in humans, primates, rodents, and even birds.

They have found when members of the same species are together; they recover better from distressing experiences. For example, when squirrel monkey mothers are separated from their babies, the mothers who lived separately from a group experienced a rise in cortisol, while the mothers who lived in a group didn’t.

Times of stress and, especially, anxiety are when you should be surrounding yourself with people who can support you and help ease some of your stress and anxiety. If you suffer from social anxiety, then skip the big parties and hang out with a close friend instead. While it may seem easier to withdraw from people, doing the opposite will get you more relief.


Therapy and Medication for Anxiety Relief

If lifestyle changes and relaxation techniques aren’t cutting it, then it may be time to see a professional. A therapist can help you understand what is causing your anxiety and can teach you many tricks and tips to help you manage it. Your therapist may also refer you to a psychiatrist if your anxiety disorder needs medication to keep it at bay.

If your anxiety is mostly managed but you’re still struggling with sleep, then consider supplementing with a nutraceutical like DREAM™. It may help you fall asleep faster, improve the quality of your sleep, and prevent you from waking too early. We know the early bird catches the worm, but there is a limit, right?.


What is the Relationship Between Stress and Anxiety? Can One Lead to the Other?

While stress and anxiety are not the same, they can be linked. For instance, both acute and chronic stress can lead to anxiety, since anxiety is usually a response to stress. In fact, a study conducted by Konstantopoulou and colleagues found that stress levels were related to clinical anxiety, and addressing stress through early interventions may reduce the risk of premature death due to anxiety disorders.

Anxiety can also lead to stress because anxiety itself creates more stress as it takes its toll on your body. There is a natural way to reduce your anxiety and manage the effects of stress – the Anxiety System by Rebalance. It is specifically formulated to lower cortisol (your stress hormone) and give you more energy. Many report a significant reduction in their anxiety, especially the morning dread and anxiety that they've become accustomed to.

Knowing the difference between stress and anxiety can help you manage your symptoms better. Understanding the cause and the symptoms of each can facilitate early diagnosis and get you the support you need to live limitlessly. Remember, while stress and anxiety seem like twins, their methods of management differ, so it’s important to find coping strategies for each.

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