Stress vs. Anxiety: What Are the Differences?

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Stress refers to your physical and psychological response to demands, difficulties, or challenges. Common symptoms of stress include muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, irritability, and difficulty breathing. 

Anxiety involves feelings of fear, worry, and/or dread in anticipation of possible danger or a negative outcome. Like stress, anxiety can cause symptoms such as a racing heart, rapid breathing, and tension. You may experience anxiety even in the absence of a potential stressor or long after a perceived threat has gone away. 

Stress and anxiety are similar, but they have different underlying causes and possible triggers. Learn more about stress vs. anxiety, including symptoms, triggers, and how to cope.

Person sitting on couch experiencing anxiety

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Symptoms of Stress vs. Anxiety

While stress and anxiety are not exactly the same, they have many key symptoms in common. 

In response to a threat or misfortune—whether real or imagined, internal or external, and present or potential—your body releases hormones (chemical messengers), such as cortisol and adrenaline. The release of these hormones causes the physiological and psychological symptoms associated with stress, anxiety, or both.

Stress Symptoms

Some telltale signs and symptoms of stress are:

  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Memory problems
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty in planning and decision-making

Everyone experiences stress as part of everyday life. In some cases, it may even prompt you to meet new challenges and rise to the occasion. 

However, if left unchecked, chronic (long-term) stress can have a negative impact on your physical and emotional well-being. Chronic stress can increase your risk of serious medical consequences, such as:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Heart disease
  • Migraines (recurring, debilitating headaches)
  • Lowered immune system
  • Insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep)
  • Diabetes
  • Nausea and indigestion

Anxiety Symptoms

Typical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feelings of fear, apprehension, dread, worry, and/or discomfort
  • Restlessness
  • Confusion
  • Excessive sweating
  • Muscle tension
  • Rapid speech
  • Racing heart
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating, planning, and making decisions

Like day-to-day stress, occasional anxiety is normal. However, if your symptoms persist, you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), involve ongoing feelings of concern and fear that disrupt your daily life.

How Common Are Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety disorders are very common. Recent estimates suggest that about 31.1% of U.S. adults will meet the diagnostic criteria of an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.

Triggers of Stress vs. Anxiety

While stress and anxiety have many symptoms in common, they are often triggered by different factors. Stress is often triggered by an external cause, while anxiety often involves internal processes.

Stress Triggers

The external causes that trigger stress are known as stressors. Any situation, environment, or event that changes your life significantly (even if positive) can lead to stress.

Common life stressors include:

  • Work-related pressures, such as getting a new job, being laid off, or having conflicts with coworkers
  • Financial problems, such as debt, unexpected costs, unemployment, housing insecurity, or living paycheck to paycheck
  • Relationship problems, such as divorce, breakups, and arguments with friends, partners, or family members
  • Major life events, such as a wedding, buying a house, or moving
  • Health issues, such as illness, disability, or injury 
  • Caregiving responsibilities, such as caring for an older family member or becoming a parent
  • Loss and bereavement, such as from the death of a family member or friend

Everyone experiences stress at some point. In some cases, it can even be positive or lifesaving. Having a flight-or-fight response to a real threat, for example, can help you get out of a dangerous situation quickly. However, stress can negatively affect your life, happiness, and health if it persists for too long.

Anxiety Triggers

Anxiety refers to your body’s and mind’s reaction to stress. Unlike stress, anxiety is primarily caused by internal responses rather than external stressors. Long-term stress also makes it more likely that you will develop anxiety.

Anxiety symptoms persist even when there is no real threat or when anticipating a possible threat. The response typically is disproportionate to the situation. For example, someone with severe anxiety may experience symptoms in response to mild, day-to-day obligations at school or work. 

If anxiety symptoms begin to impair your functioning in major areas of your life, you may have GAD or another anxiety disorder. Some people with anxiety develop specific phobias—intense, persistent fears about a particular situation or object, such as social events, public speaking, or germs. 

While anyone can have anxiety, the following factors increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder in response to stress:

  • Biological factors: Research suggests that genetics and neurological differences, such as overactivity in certain parts of the brain, play a role in the development of anxiety disorders.
  • Learned behavior: Early childhood experiences and environmental factors, such as having overprotective parents, may cause someone to develop certain patterns of anxious thinking. Anxious parents may also model their behavior to their children, who pick up on their habits.
  • Negative thinking: Many people with anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions have fallen into patterns of repetitive negative thinking about themselves, others, and the world around them. 
  • Personality traits: People with certain personality traits, such as introversion (focusing on their inner life rather than external interactions) and perfectionism, are more likely to experience anxiety.

Traumatic Stress

Traumatic stress may be triggered by incidents like abuse, assault, a severe injury or accident, war, and natural disasters, among others. In some cases, it can lead someone to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that involves repeated flashbacks to a traumatizing event or events.

Coping With Stress vs. Anxiety

One way to cope with anxiety and stress is to prevent it from happening in the first place. It’s important to learn to identify your triggers in order to stop a cycle of anxious thinking in its tracks. Once you understand your typical stress responses, it’s much easier to prevent chronic worry.

It’s also important to develop a game plan for stress management and anxiety reduction. Read on to learn more about how to cope with stress and anxiety.

Coping With Stress

When you’re facing stress, it’s crucial to have a toolbox of healthy stress-reduction methods. Here are some positive ways you can cope with stress.

  • Create a healthy daily routine: During times of stress, it can be tempting to rest less often. But it’s when you’re under pressure that breaks are especially key. Set boundaries around your time to preserve your mental energy. Build into your daily routine time for physical activity, ample sleep, nutritious meals, and shutting off your phone. 
  • Set realistic goals: If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to break your larger goals down into smaller, more manageable ones. Setting (and meeting) your goals will help to build your self-esteem and keep your stress under control. 
  • Open up: If you’re having trouble making a decision or resolving a conflict, the first step is to open up and talk about it. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from your loved ones, mentors, or colleagues. They may even be able to help you find a solution to your problem.
  • Build your support system: A healthy support system of family, friends, neighbors, and loved ones can help you manage your responsibilities during life’s stressful moments. If you don’t feel like you’re part of a community yet, start by volunteering with local organizations or picking up a new hobby. 
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol: Some people tend to reach for counterproductive coping methods when they’re in a stressful situation. Try to avoid self-medicating with excessive drug and alcohol use, as well as other unhealthy behaviors like impulsive spending.
  • Say no when necessary: Sometimes, the only way to reduce your stress is to remove yourself from a high-pressure situation. If a toxic work environment is affecting your emotional well-being, it might be time to cut back on your hours or consider switching jobs. Assert yourself, set healthy boundaries, and be ready to make changes if need be.

Coping With Anxiety

Coping with anxiety can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. The following coping methods can help you manage your anxiety symptoms, boost your confidence, and improve your overall well-being:

  • Adjust your thinking: Anxiety is often rooted in unhealthy thought patterns. For example, you may tell yourself that you’ll “always” be a certain way or that a certain negative outcome is inevitable. When you notice yourself having negative thoughts, try to observe them and let them pass without judgment. Over time, you can start replacing them with more positive, realistic thoughts.
  • Face your fears: To take control of your anxiety, it’s important to confront your fears. You don’t have to throw yourself headfirst into an anxiety-inducing situation, but taking baby steps—such as introducing yourself to one person at a party or trying a new activity—can be empowering.
  • Avoid caffeine: Studies have found that excessive caffeine use is linked to symptoms like high blood pressure, panic, and insomnia. Limit your caffeine intake as much as possible to prevent your anxiety symptoms from getting worse.
  • Use a self-care app: A self-care or anxiety reduction smartphone app can help you monitor your anxiety symptoms over time, identify your usual triggers, and establish a consistent routine to improve your mental health.
  • Try relaxation exercises: If you experience anxiety frequently, it can be hard to relax. Deep breathing techniques, soothing music, guided imagery exercises, and calming activities like painting can help you train your body and mind to press pause. 
  • Practice mindfulness techniques: Anxiety is often focused on the hypothetical future. Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, can help you learn to stay present in the immediate moment. 
  • Write in a journal: Whether you’re facing a difficult choice or major life change, a journal can provide a safe space for you to vent, brainstorm, and reflect. It can also work to reduce anxiety symptoms and improve your self-compassion and self-acceptance.
  • Seek treatment: If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, reach out to your healthcare provider for help. Effective treatments for anxiety include psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

Seek Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Summary

Stress is the physical and psychological reaction to external stressors. Common stress triggers include work pressures, relationship problems, health issues, financial concerns, major life changes, grief, and trauma

Anxiety also refers to the body’s response to stress. However, anxiety symptoms may occur in anticipation of a potential danger or persist after a threat has long since gone away. They may continue or get worse even when there is no external source of stress.

Both anxiety and stress cause symptoms like a rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, irritability, restlessness, and problems with concentration.

Coping methods include identifying and preventing triggers, avoiding drugs and alcohol, using mindfulness techniques, strengthening connections with others, and practicing self-care. Talk therapy and medication may help to treat anxiety disorders and other related mental health conditions.

A Word From Verywell

Stress and anxiety often feel more intense when they occur at the same time. If you’re coping with stress, anxiety, or both, it’s important to identify your triggers—and don’t be afraid to seek help if needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why does stress trigger anxiety?

    Stress hormones, such as cortisol, are released in response to a real or perceived threat. These hormones prompt many of the most common anxiety symptoms, like an increased heart rate and rapid breathing. Over time, chronic stress can lead to persistent anxiety if it interferes with your ability to function normally on a day-to-day basis.

  • What happens to the body during stress and anxiety?

    Stress and anxiety often cause symptoms like a racing pulse, excessive sweating, muscle tension, and shortness of breath. These physical symptoms are often accompanied by emotions like dread, nervousness, excitability, restlessness, irritability, and/or confusion. You may also feel overwhelmed or like you aren’t able to control your thoughts.

  • How do you identify stress and anxiety?

    You may be experiencing chronic stress if the obligations and pressures of daily life are causing you anxiety regularly. People under chronic stress often find it difficult to fall and stay asleep, have trouble concentrating, and feel consumed with worry and uneasiness.

    You may also experience physical symptoms like unexplained aches and pains, chronic fatigue, tension, or migraines.

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