What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?
Though we often think of stress and anxiety as interchangeable — and they do share many of the same physical and emotional symptoms — they have important distinctions to recognize. Being able to identify stressors in your life and your internal reactions can help you learn how to manage some of the symptoms you might be experiencing. Dealing with stress and anxiety becomes more manageable when you understand the difference between the two.
What is stress?
Stress is caused by external factors. Tests at school, big performances or competitions, and arguments with friends are all examples of external situations that can release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones create the sensation known as the fight-flight-freeze response, and they can actually help you in several situations, such as sports competitions or when the body is in danger. You may feel energy surge through your body if you are stressed about an event or if you’re in an emergency. Your instincts take over, telling you that you are facing danger and must either defend yourself (fight), get away (flight) or stay still (freeze). Stress can be overwhelming, but once the perceived threat has disappeared, your feelings of stress will go away.
What are the effects of stress?
Stress can show up in many physical, emotional, and behavioral ways. Usually, you will only notice these symptoms when you’re stressed out. They will wear off as the threat of the situation has passed.
- Elevated heart rate
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Upset stomach
- Moodiness or irritability
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Aches, pains and cramps
How to manage and reduce stress
When you begin to feel stress, and the symptoms that come along with it, remember to practice these following coping skills:
- Take a few deep breaths to center yourself or practice meditation.
- Get some kind of physical activity every day. Start with a short walk or stretching.
- Do an activity you enjoy.
- Talk to a trusted friend or family member about how you are feeling.
- Maintain good health habits. Eat well-balanced meals, avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, and get a good night’s rest. A healthy body tolerates stress more effectively.
- Try practicing positive affirmations to remind yourself that you are skilled enough for the task at hand and capable of great things.
Download Our Guide to Stressing Less
What is anxiety?
Unlike stress, anxiety is often caused by an unidentifiable or over-amplified source of worry and can persist for much longer than stress might. People who struggle with anxiety will worry about a variety of stressors, often for long periods of time when the threat that triggered stress has long subsided.
What are the effects of anxiety?
Stress and anxiety share many of the same symptoms, both physical and mental. It’s important to recognize patterns of symptoms when you’re feeling anxious so they can be managed and reduced quickly.
- Muscle tension
- Feeling tense or jumpy
- Anticipating the worst and being watchful for signs of danger
- Elevated heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Shaking hands
- Feelings of nausea
How to manage anxiety
You can manage anxiety by learning different ways to calm your nerves and relax your mind and body. This will help your heart rate and breathing to be more steady, allowing your body to recognize that you’re not in danger and can return to a peaceful state of mind.
- Eat well-balanced meals and avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
- Go outside for physical activity at least once a day.
- Do an activity or hobby you enjoy.
- Get plenty of rest. Your body and mind need to re-energize each night.
- If you notice your mind racing or worrying about the past or future, take a minute to breathe deeply.
- Practice guided imagery. Imagine your happy place. What do you see, smell and feel when you are in your happy place?
- Notice negative thoughts coming up throughout the day? Try this Affirmations Activity to build a daily practice of self-compassion and encouragement.
- Recognize what is in your control and what is outside of your control.
- Make a mental note or write down what you are grateful for. Recognize that some anxiety is useful and necessary.
- Avoid holding in feelings day after day. Instead, find a safe place to feel, express and embrace them.
- Practice aromatherapy. The mind, body, and spirit can be soothed when smell receptors are stimulated with relaxing scents.
Download Our Guide on Managing Anxiety
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help
Talk with your parents or another close family member or friend if stress or anxiety interferes with your everyday life or you are experiencing symptoms for two weeks or more. And remember to look at our wide range of mental health resources for additional suggestions on how to manage stress and anxiety. If you or someone close to you is in crisis, call the free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.