Sleepless nights, exhaustion, excessive worry, lack of focus, and irritability—from the outside looking in it can be difficult to spot the difference between stress and anxiety. Even physical symptoms, like rapid heart rate, muscle tension, and headaches, can impact both people experiencing stress and those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
So while the symptoms of stress and anxiety can appear to be interchangeable, it’s important to know that they are two different experiences:
Stress is your body’s reaction to a trigger and is generally a short-term experience (days, not months).
- When it comes to stress, you know what you’re dealing with—a looming deadline, bills, picking up the kids…
- While stress can cause insomnia, poor concentration, and other physical symptoms—it can generally be tackled head-on, by rolling up your sleeves and directly addressing what’s stressing you out.
- Stress is more easily redirected into something positive and actionable.
The symptoms of stress can vary and change over time which is why learning to identify it early is key, as is building out your own “stress reduction toolkit”. Whether you turn to relaxation breathing, yoga, physical exercise, meditation, journaling, or calling a friend—find what works for you so you can be ready next time stress kicks in.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a sustained mental health disorder (6 months+) that can be triggered by stress but doesn’t fade into the distance once the initial trigger has gone.
- With anxiety, it’s like a snowball—you become less aware of what you’re anxious about, and the reaction becomes the problem.
- You can even start to feel anxious about being anxious.
- It can cause significant impairment in social, occupational, and other areas of day-to-day functioning.
When stress no longer feels manageable and is interfering with your day-to-day life, you may be dealing with the symptoms of anxiety—don’t brush it off, and don’t be afraid to seek an evaluation from a licensed mental health practitioner if this is the case so you can get the appropriate support.
Most of us will experience difficult emotions in one form or another—research shows that 31% of adults in the US will experience anxiety at some time in their lives, and 75% of adults regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. But now that you know the difference between stress and anxiety you can be in the driver’s seat of identifying what you need to best navigate life’s challenges and enjoy vital health along the way.
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