Tricks to know if you have anxiety or stress

Both anxiety and stress can cause significant mental and physical health problems. Both are normal responses and emotions, and can become unmanageable and require professional support. Find out the differences between the two and what to do to find relief.

Stress and anxiety are not abnormal feelings or reactions. We all experience this at times and to varying degrees. Both can become overwhelming and disruptive to life, yet there are important differences. Most notably, anxiety can be a specific mental illness, a type of anxiety disorder. Regardless of whether the problems are related to stress, anxiety, or both, it’s important to know when to seek professional help.

What is stress?

Stress is a normal response of the body to some type of change, demand or threat. The response may have a physical, emotional, or mental component. Everyone experiences some degree of stress in their lives and each person may respond differently to stressors, with some reacting more intensely or more frequently than others. Potential stressors, which can be:

  • Pressure from responsibilities at home, work, or school
  • Financial problems
  • Be very busy
  • A major or sudden change, such as a divorce, death, or loss of a job
  • A traumatic experience, such as abuse or an accident

The type of stress can be both good and bad. Good stress motivates us to perform tasks, to do them well, and to concentrate on activities. Overwhelming and chronic stress is not good for your physical or mental health. When stress persists, it can cause depression, physical pain, difficulty sleeping, digestive problems, isolation, diet and weight changes, and even heart disease.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is also normal. It is a feeling of fear, worry or nervousness. We may feel anxious before an important exam. Stress and anxiety often go hand in hand, with stressful events or experiences triggering feelings of anxiety.

When anxiety becomes problematic is when it is out of control and impacts life in a significant negative way. Excessive anxiety can cause problems similar to chronic stress: emotional distress and physical symptoms. High anxiety or an anxiety disorder can keep us from doing things like meeting friends, going to work, or trying something new.

diferencias entre ansiedad y estres

How are they different?

The big difference between stress and anxiety is the presence of a specific trigger . Stress is usually tied to a specific situation. Once that situation is resolved, so is the stress.

Maybe we have an exam that we are worried about doing. Or we are trying to juggle working from home with three young children vying for our attention. In both cases, there is a specific root of stress. Once the test is over or the kids go back to daycare, the stress starts to melt away.

However, that does not mean that stress is always short-lived. Chronic stress refers to long-lasting stress that occurs in response to constant pressure, such as a demanding job or family conflict.

Anxiety, on the other hand, does not always have a specific stressor. Also, although stress and anxiety are different things, they are closely related. In some cases, stress can trigger anxiety. If we are stressed about an upcoming big move, we may start to feel nervous about nothing in particular.

How to identify each one?

Most likely we are experiencing a bit of both, but one can be more overwhelming. There are some symptoms that can help us distinguish between anxiety and stress:

  • The stress is mainly external . Although we can cause ourselves stress through negative self-talk, a pessimistic attitude, or a sense of perfectionism, it is usually caused by something external. Too many responsibilities or a high-risk work project trigger a stress response. Anxiety, on the other hand, is more internal. It is how we react to stressors. If we remove those stressors and still feel overwhelmed and distraught, we are probably dealing with anxiety.
  • Anxiety is an excessive reaction to a situation . Certain situations are stressful and would be for anyone, such as arranging for the death of a loved one. Anxiety is more of an outsized reaction. If the worry and distress we feel in a given situation is unusual, excessive, or goes far beyond other people’s reactions, it may be anxiety rather than stress.
  • Anxiety causes disability . Most stressful situations are difficult to overcome, but they are manageable. Anxiety disorders can leave us completely unable to handle normal everyday tasks. If we are distressed to the point of not being able to work or having a panic attack, the underlying problem may be an anxiety disorder.
  • Anxiety generates feelings of dread and fear for things that have not happened or that do not exist. Stress is a response to something that happens or a pressure that we feel. Anxiety can be internal and not a reaction to anything that exists in reality. For example, with an anxiety disorder, you may feel a general sense of apprehension, dread, and worry, even when nothing to worry about comes up.

señales de la ansiedad

When to go to the doctor?

Although stress and anxiety are normal emotions and reactions, they can become uncontrollable. If stress or worry overwhelms us, takes over life and prevents us from functioning, we might benefit from some professional therapy and treatment. Some more specific signs that anxiety or stress have gotten out of control in our lives are:

  • Stress or anxiety interferes with important parts of life, including relationships, work, school, and responsibilities.
  • The reactions and emotions we feel are overwhelming, cause us great distress, or are difficult or impossible to control and lessen.
  • They also have physical health problems that can be related to stress and anxiety.
  • There are other mental health problems, either caused by stress or worry or just happening at the same time. These can include depression, substance abuse, or anything else.
  • Experiencing something traumatic, either in the past or recently.
  • Stress or anxiety is causing us thoughts of self-harm, hopelessness or suicide.

Treatment for excessive stress or an anxiety disorder is available and very effective. Anyone can benefit from medical care to manage any underlying illnesses or complications caused by stress. Therapy can teach helpful strategies for managing stress, coping with stress and anxiety, and changing patterns of thinking and behavior that worsen mental health.

One of the best things therapy can do, whether we are diagnosed with a real mental illness or not, is provide the tools we need to practice good mental health. We will use these tools to minimize stress in life, manage stress as it arises, and relax when anxiety threatens to overwhelm us.