We’ve all experienced either stress or anxiety – both lead to symptoms such as emotional exhaustion, brain fog, sleepless nights, muscle tension, headaches and more. However, given the interchangeable nature of these symptoms, it can be difficult to determine which one you're experiencing.
This answer matters, because it determines the treatment approach you will take to get better. For example, misreading the warning signs of anxiety for stress may lead to trying out ineffective interventions, worsening your symptoms over time and delaying the help you actually need from a licensed practitioner.
Stress is your body’s reaction to an external trigger, whereas anxiety is a sustained mental health issue that is internal – it is not dependent on an external trigger.
In addition, there are five other factors that help distinguish between the two conditions:
Since stress is dependent on an external factor, it can vary in its length and severity. For example, an upcoming deadline at work can cause stress for a few weeks. However, if there is high pressure at work on an ongoing basis, it can also develop into chronic stress.
Anxiety on the other hand, continues to persist even after a stressor is gone. This can lead to significant impairment with functioning on a daily basis, especially in social settings and in the workplace.
According to the UK’s National Health Service, the emotion that dominates stress is ‘mental and emotional pressure’, whereas the emotion that is dominant in anxiety is ‘unease, worry or fear’. The magnitude of anxiety often tends to be out of proportion in relation to the situation or context as well.
In a case of chronic stress, it is simple to pinpoint what the stressor is. For example, it could be a toxic relationship, financial trouble or pressure at work
While anxiety may begin as a case of stress, after a while it becomes difficult to pinpoint what you’re anxious about in the first place. The reaction becomes the problem i.e. you are anxious about being anxious.
Since the root cause of stress is easier to identify, it is easier to manage and treat – you do not feel as helpless. Anxiety on the other hand, is far more difficult to manage since there is no direct link to a cause; the lack of an identifiable root cause can trigger feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
While certain physical symptoms are the same, such as muscle tension and rapid heartbeat, the similarities taper off when anxiety turns into a panic attack. This can bring about more severe symptoms such as breathing difficulties, chest pains, chills and an overwhelming sense of terror.
The five key areas mentioned above should help you distinguish between stress and anxiety. For further clarity, you can also review a comprehensive list of the symptoms for both mental health issues below.
If you resonate with these symptoms, you can also take Veeva's quiz to figure out whether you have a case of mild, moderate or severe stress.
As mentioned above, the root cause of stress is the reaction to external stressors. In the short-term it can be helpful to reduce or eliminate stressors, for example with a short vacation. However, this is not a realistic solution for the long-term; stressors will always exist in some form or another, but what is manageable is your reaction.
Below are some effective ways to improve your reaction to stress:
Anxiety, on the other hand, requires a more nuanced approach. The root cause is internal thought patterns. If you have occasional anxiety or it is mild, it may be possible to manage it at home. However, in cases of severe anxiety it is important to visit a healthcare practitioner.
While the steps mentioned above to reduce stress – such as exercise, meditation and self care – can be helpful, anxiety also needs to be treated at more of a physiological level to help rewire the brain. The following should be considered: