Stress vs anxiety — how are they different? Although stress and anxiety are both marked by abnormal brain activity and cause similar biological and behavioral responses, they’re actually clinically distinct. 

Stress is the body’s reaction to external threats and societal pressures. 

Chronic anxiety is a mental health condition that affects more than 40 million adult Americans and results from irrational and unrealistic threats.

Let’s dive deeper into the difference between stress and anxiety. We’ll explain how to tell apart one from the other, exploring the symptoms and triggers, and offering practical advice about seeking professional help to deal with either.

Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety both have a wide range of psychological, physiological, and physical symptoms. Some of them — like rapid breathing, upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea, rapid heartbeat, and an inability to relax — overlap and can be present in both conditions.  

It’s important to understand that both stress and anxiety are natural human responses that have a purpose. They warn us about danger or try to keep us safe. A major difference, however, is that stress is typically a short-term response to a recognized threat. Anxiety is more enduring, and it can sometimes be difficult to discern what’s causing it.

Stress and anxiety only become problematic when they’re chronic or excessively intense. In reality, they can be beneficial to our health and well-being when experienced in small doses over short periods.

Let’s examine some of the symptoms of stress vs anxiety separately.

Symptoms of stress

Some of the most common symptoms of stress include:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Sweaty palms
  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Rapid breathing

Stress can also often cause you to feel overwhelmed, moody, or irritable.

Symptoms of anxiety

Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Tense muscles
  • Being easily startled
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
  • Consistent feelings of dread or impending doom

Anxiety can cause you to feel restless and jittery. It may also make falling or staying asleep difficult.

Causes Of Stress vs. Anxiety

The causes of anxiety and stress are known as “triggers.” Anxiety can be caused by a combination of environmental factors, genetics, and chemical imbalances that are unique to each individual. Excessively entertaining negative thoughts can also exacerbate generalized anxiety. Comparatively, stress is triggered by outside factors.

Stress triggers 

Stress symptoms can be triggered by external life events such as:

  • Dealing with major pressures like work deadlines and professional presentations
  • Significant life changes like getting married, buying a new property, a death
  • Feeling out of control about the outcome of important situations
  • Being at odds with somebody you love
  • Common everyday worries

It’s important to understand that there doesn’t need to be a single powerful stressor that’s causing you to feel stressed. Stress can result from various small triggers over time.

Anxiety triggers

Anxiety in small doses is healthy and keeps us alert and aware of potential threats around us. It changes our senses and prepares us for survival. For instance, maybe you feel anxious while walking down a dark city street. That feeling is healthy. It prepares you to fight or flee. It’s your survival instinct at work.

However, when anxiety is chronic and excessive, it can lead to various mental health conditions and anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to name a few.  

Some of the most common triggers for anxiety can include:

  • Conflict with people at work, family members, or romantic partners
  • Chronic insomnia or other sleep disturbances
  • A serious health diagnosis
  • Public speaking  
  • Long-term financial problems
  • Heavy caffeine use

Learning how to anticipate and recognize your triggers can help you to determine the best coping strategies for dealing with your stress and anxiety — but how do you know which one you’re experiencing at any given time?

How to Know If You’re Dealing with Stress or Anxiety

Knowing the difference between stress and anxiety is easier once you understand more about each condition. Anxiety and stress are both parts of the body’s natural fight or flight response system, which is controlled by the brain’s limbic system. When we feel threatened, our bodies release stress hormones. Those hormones cause our heart rate to increase, which results in increased blood circulation to the limbs and organs.

The stress response prepares you to either fight or run away from a threat. Your breathing becomes quicker and more shallow. Your blood pressure rises. At the same time, your senses become sharper as the body releases special nutrients into the circulatory system so that the entire body is charged with energy. This stress process happens almost instantaneously, and its effects are powerful. 

Anxiety, however, is the body’s response to the stress process. It’s typically marked by feelings of unease, dread, or distress, like something harmful might happen at any moment. Because each person has different stressors, naturally, there are different types of anxiety, like social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, etc.

These responses might kick in when you’re faced with an emotional or physical threat, even if that threat is just imaginary. While the process is necessary for our survival and health, if it happens too often or too intensely, it can cause problems in our daily life.

One of the main ways to tell anxiety from stress is duration. Stress typically self-resolves within a short time. Anxiety can last longer, and its cause is often difficult to discern. If you’re experiencing repetitive symptoms and can’t tell whether they’re stress or anxiety-related, you might want to consider seeking help from a mental health professional.

“Anxiety can be triggered by stress, of course, but it can also resonate internally on its own, without a trigger, due to a perceived or imagined fear. Stress is often linked to a known source such as work, a relationship, or even a challenging situation. Working with clients to identify and manage both can truly empower a growth mindset rather than feeling stalled by dysregulation.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, MSW

When Should You Find Help?

Sometimes, anxiety and stress happen simultaneously, and it can feel very overwhelming. If you’re constantly feeling stressed out or anxious, to the point where it’s affecting your daily life, you might want to get professional support from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional. Fortunately, you can find some that are willing to conduct online therapy. So you can still get medical advice when you are unable to go in person.

Learning to recognize and anticipate your triggers is an effective strategy you can practice at home. When you learn to spot your triggers as they occur, you can take immediate action to avoid the onset of stress and anxiety symptoms and figure out how to respond during a stressful situation. You can also figure out strategies for effective anxiety or stress management. For instance, you could do deep breathing exercises, meditate, or take a nice relaxing Epsom salt bath.

“It can be so helpful to reach out to a trusted support system or a therapist when stress and anxiety start to hamper your daily activities. Increased physical symptoms such as digestive issues, migraines, or headaches and poor sleep can be a sign that you’re not yourself and an indicator that stress and anxiety are getting in the way.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, MSW

You should speak to a doctor or therapist about exploring therapy for anxiety if you feel out of control and unable to handle routine life events. Consider seeking professional help if you:

  • Had a significant change in eating, sleeping, or personal hygiene habits
  • Have been thinking about harming yourself or other people
  • Have been using alcohol and drugs to numb your feelings
  • Are unable to complete your daily work and life tasks
  • Always feel in a low mood or depressed
  • Are having irrational fears

Remember that chronic stress and anxiety are both very treatable and manageable. Educate yourself about basic, effective coping mechanisms (and other medical advice) and use them daily. With just a few minutes of practice a day, you can retrain your mind and learn to anticipate stress and anxiety triggers before they take hold of your emotions.