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Stress vs. anxiety: Yes, they’re different

August 29, 2022 - 17 min read

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What is stress?

What is anxiety?

5 differences between anxiety and stress

6 examples of stress and anxiety

6 causes of stress and anxiety

How to identify stress and anxiety

Can stress cause anxiety?

How to prevent stress from generalized anxiety

You know that something is causing you to feel unwell, but you can’t put your finger on it. Your heart rate races, you have trouble focusing on things, and sometimes you feel a shortness of breath. These can be symptoms of stress, but they can also be symptoms of anxiety. So what’s exactly going on? Is it stress, anxiety, or a bit of both?

Familiarizing yourself with stress versus anxiety will help you take care of your mental health. But since these two issues are so similar, they can be confused. You should familiarize yourself with their differences to know how to best help yourself. 

We’ll walk you through both terms with examples, differences, and causes. And at the very end, we’ll explain how we can prevent our stress from turning into a generalized anxiety disorder.

What is stress?

Stress is caused by external factors that are chemical, physical, or emotional that create tension both mentally and physically in our bodies. When our brains perceive a threat, we release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones impact our entire bodies, heightening our senses to be more alert for possible dangers. 

We can experience various types of stress, too. On a short-term basis, we experience acute stress. Stress triggers like traffic jams or arguments with loved ones can cause acute stress. And consistent acute stressors can contribute to health issues. 

Then there’s chronic stress. Stress that sticks around long-term can cause serious health problems. Constantly elevated cortisol levels can impact our whole bodies, including our reproductive system, cardiovascular system, blood pressure, and more. 

Sometimes, stress can work for you. Good stress, like eustress, can contribute to feelings of excitement or anticipation. It’s what we can feel before going on a vacation or performing on stage. But even though some stress can be positive, we still have to recognize the stress that negatively impacts our physical and mental health.

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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion that involves worrying, intrusive thoughts, and tension. It can also cause physical symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, or increased heart rates. But just like stress, anxiety has many layers. There are many different types of anxiety disorders, like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder that involves panic attacks, separation anxiety, and social anxiety.

Anxiety is also related to certain phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) found that GAD affects 6.8 million American adults annually. It’s something that many people can experience in their lifetime, in various levels of severity and lengths of time. Different factors can also affect the onset of GAD. For example, one person may experience greater anxiety about their financial situation than another. But the ADAA states that the risk for GAD is highest between childhood and middle age. 

Through a relationship with a BetterUp coach, you can gain deeper insights into yourself to understand if you feel anxious or stressed in your daily life and how to manage it.

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5 differences between anxiety and stress

It’s much easier to acknowledge the similarities between anxiety and stress than the differences. Anxiety and stress are related, that’s for sure. The physical symptoms and how they impact our behavior are similar. Both are mental health issues that deserve attention. But when we talk about what the difference is between stress and anxiety, we have several factors to discuss. 

Here are five ways that anxiety and stress are different:

  1. Stress can leave once the threat is gone, but anxiety lingers around after the threat disappears 
  2. Anxiety can be caused by more internal factors, whereas stressors are mostly external factors
  3. Anxiety can arise even when we don’t recognize a threat or cause
  4. Stress can impact more areas of our bodies and cause more symptoms than anxiety does
  5. Stress can sometimes have positive impacts where anxiety doesn’t

6 examples of stress and anxiety

The anxiety and stress you experience may differ from someone else’s. Your experience is unique to you. That’s why it’s important to read examples of both stress and anxiety to help us understand and visualize them better.

Here are three examples of each:

3 examples of stress

  1. You just graduated from college and have a ton of student debt to pay off
  2. You’re going back to work after your maternity leave
  3. You have a big presentation to give at work in front of your entire office

3 examples of anxiety

  1. You’re returning to work after having COVID-19 and worried about catching the virus
  2. When you speak up in social situations, you start to feel sweaty, and your heart rate races
  3. As a child, you worried every time your parent left you somewhere

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6 causes of stress and anxiety

Here’s another similarity between stress and anxiety: There isn’t one singular cause. It can seem challenging to narrow down what’s causing us our stress and anxiety since there are so many possibilities. But taking the time and effort to narrow down what’s causing it can help us learn about managing stress and anxiety.

Let’s review three causes for both:

Causes of stress:

  1. World issues: Anything from election stress to climate change can cause us to feel stressed out on a short-term or long-term basis. Ongoing things like how COVID-19 can also cause stress. The American Psychological Association found that 78% of surveyed Americans say the pandemic has been a significant source of stress in their lives.
  2. Financial issues: Money struggles and responsibilities can cause us to feel like something threatens our safety. Financial stress can impact our relationships with others and our own personal situations. It can stem from student debt, loss of work, and more.
  3. Significant life changes: Coping with change can be very overwhelming. Since everything is new, we can perceive many things as threats. The change could be living in a new city, starting a new job, or moving in with someone. They might not be negative, but they still cause us stress.

Causes of anxiety:

  1. Childhood shyness: If you were a shy child, your shyness could grow into anxiety. More specifically, it could develop into a social anxiety disorder that makes you worried and nervous in social situations. Big crowds and having the spotlight on you could cause your anxiety.
  2. Traumatic events: After a traumatic event, we can feel triggered by objects or places that remind us of that trauma. These objects or environments can cause people to worry and think about the next time they encounter them. It can even lead to panic attacks.
  3. Genetics: Some studies have shown that anxiety disorders can be passed along through genetics. If your parents or grandparents have anxiety disorders, it can impact you and your family.

How to identify stress and anxiety

Identifying stress and anxiety isn’t easy. We can’t run one singular test that measures our stress versus anxiety levels. It may take a few different tests and discussions to narrow it down to either stress or anxiety. And stress and anxiety sharing similarities don’t mean we can manage them the same.

What could be an important skill to manage stress could be useless for our anxiety and vice versa.

Here are a few ways to identify stress and anxiety:

Anxiety

  • Determine if anxiety is something that runs in your family genes and could be passed down to you
  • Have your health care provider use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Use one of the ADAA’s self-screening tools

sad-woman-lying-on-sofa-stress-vs-anxiety

Stress

  • Reflect on how long you worry about things even after the threat has passed
  • Evaluate where your threats originate. If they’re external, then it’s stress
  • Have tests done on the other health problems you have to see if there are any other causes

Can stress cause anxiety?

People can wonder if anxiety causes stress, but really, it’s the other way around. Acute and chronic stress can eventually cause anxiety if left untreated. The issue begins when our stress overwhelms us and our lives. Stress that isn’t managed creates more worries about our health. 

When the threat that causes our stress is gone, we may worry about its inevitable return. This is how our stress can cause anxiety. We become worried about possible threats we may not encounter.

Sometimes, it’s challenging to identify what’s causing us to feel certain ways, especially since stress and anxiety share many symptoms. Both can cause physical symptoms like an elevated heart rate or muscle tension, so it’s easy to become confused.

But we can understand that stress comes first, not the other way around. We then have a better idea of how to manage our symptoms because we’ve identified the root cause.

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How to prevent stress from generalized anxiety

When we talk about stress versus anxiety, it’s important to know that it can happen anywhere and at any life stage Sometimes stressors may pop up in your life unexpectedly. While we can do our best to learn how to reduce stress and anxiety, we can’t eliminate them from our lives. 

We’ve learned examples of stress and anxiety and what may cause them. When we’re prepared and knowledgeable, we can be proactive in dealing with challenges that come our way. Since it can be tricky to decipher whether you’re stressed, anxious, or both, understanding both issues is a great start.

Here are some final tips to help you learn how to calm yourself down, support your overall wellness, and manage your stress so it doesn’t turn into anxiety:

  • Use relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation
  • Block out time in your schedule for self-care and other things you love
  • Get enough sleep and rest your body each day
  • Learn how to say “no” when you feel your stress and anxiety creeping in
  • Don’t hesitate to find a mental health professional to try cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Lean on your friends and family members for support
  • Keep a gratitude journal to remind yourself of the positive things you appreciate

Finding someone you can talk to about your worries and stressors is important. At BetterUp, our coaches can help you identify what causes stress in life and create strategies to help you manage it before it creates anxiety.

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Published August 29, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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