Does the Difference Between Anxiety and Stress Matter?
Anxiety and stress are similar in nature. They both are typically unwelcome invaders intruding on our lives, rudely disrupting our inner peace and calm. Because they are related, people often use the terms interchangeably. Technically, there is a slight difference between anxiety and stress. For each of us in our daily lives, though, does the difference really matter? Read on, and decide for yourself.
The (Slight) Difference Between Anxiety and Stress
Anxiety and stress share many common features. Both involve:
- Emotional upheaval like mood swings and irritability
- Negative thoughts about yourself, others, or situations
- Behavior changes such as avoiding stressful or anxiety-provoking situations, procrastination, or overworking
- Physical symptoms including headaches, gastrointestinal problems, sweating, chest pains, frequent need to use the bathroom, and changes in heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure
- Activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the fight-flight-or-freeze reaction that involves the entire body (many areas and structures of the brain, the central nervous system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and multiple hormones and neurotransmitters)–it’s this physiological response that is largely behind our stressed or anxious thoughts, feelings, actions, and physical sensations
Anxiety and stress are indeed nearly synonymous. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the primary differences involve the trigger that leads to them and how long they last1. Stress is triggered by external events, whereas anxiety’s triggers can be external or internal; further, the experience of stress typically subsides once the trigger disappears or is handled, but anxiety persists after the trigger is gone.
A trigger is something that causes the physiological reaction that sets the SNS into motion and, in turn, causes a cascade of negative thoughts, feelings, and undesirable actions. Triggers are highly personal, and what sends one person into fight-flight-or-freeze mode might not bother another person at all–and vice versa. A trigger can be an external event big enough to be traumatic (such as being involved in or witnessing a horrible accident), or it can be smaller in nature like a conflict with a coworker. The most important part of a trigger is the reaction it causes within each of us–our thoughts, emotions, and actions.
With stress, our reaction calms down shortly after we deal with the stressor. For example, you might be racing against the clock to finish an important work project on time. You feel stressed out and worried about whether you’ll finish and do a good job–you might have headaches or other physical symptoms, negative thoughts, worries, what-ifs, and roiling emotions. Then you complete the project and that stressor ends. Sure, it might be replaced by another stressful project, but each stressor is a separate event, and your own experience of stress comes and goes with each new trigger.
With anxiety, a couple of things might happen differently. You might face the same external trigger (the big, important project with its looming deadline) and feel stressed about it, experiencing the same symptoms mentioned above. With anxiety, however, when the project is over, the stress reactions don’t subside but continue, often just as intensely. You might continue to worry that you didn’t do a good job and imagine a host of negative consequences happening to you. In anxiety, too, these original worries often trigger other worries (this is considered an internal stressor, as your own thoughts are cascading into other worries), and you continue to experience negative thoughts and emotions that impact your actions. Alternately, anxiety can occur without a direct and obvious external trigger but is seemingly fueled by your thoughts and feelings about situations in your life.
Stress and anxiety are each caused by slightly different things, and anxiety isn’t as time- or situation-limited as stress. If they do have the same trigger, anxiety continues when stress stops. The thoughts, emotions, and actions taken or avoided are very similar to both stress and anxiety. Given that the experience of these two annoying conditions is so similar, do their differences matter?
The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety May or May Not Matter to You
Your experiences are the way they are regardless of whether you call them stress or anxiety. To decide if the difference matters, consider how much the effects of stress/anxiety are disrupting your life and how you’d like to deal with them. Another thing that stress and anxiety have in common is that they are both treatable.
Often, the symptoms of stress and anxiety can be reduced with self-care. Recognizing your thoughts, emotions, actions, and physical symptoms as they begin can help you reduce them. When you notice your unique effects of anxiety and stress, pausing to reset can help. Things like exercise, healthy eating and drinking, pursuing enjoyable hobbies and relaxing activities, and meditation can go a long way in nurturing your body and mind so that you can handle stressful, anxiety-provoking challenges.
Sometimes, though, there is more to stress than external triggers. When internal triggers like memories, worries about the future, what-ifs and worst-case scenarios, take over and interfere in your daily life for weeks or more, an anxiety disorder may be at work. If that’s the case, self-care is still important, but stronger treatment is often necessary. Anxiety disorders sometimes require medication to help the brain and central nervous system return to proper functioning, and therapy with a mental health professional can go a long way in helping you deal with those internal triggers that keep anxiety going strong. Anxiety treatment is tailored for each individual because we’re all so different, so only a visit with a doctor or mental health professional can help you know what treatment is right for you personally.
Whether you use the term stress or anxiety isn’t as important as the effects they are having on your life. Paying attention to how stress and/or anxiety are disrupting you will help you know how to most effectively deal with them. Taking your life back is the most important thing of all, far more important than whether you call your experience stress or anxiety.
American Psychological Association, « What’s the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety? » September, 2020.