At first thought, knowing whether you’re suffering from stress or anxiety can be confusing and difficult to figure out. They have many similar symptoms, such as insomnia, irritability, constant worry, and even physical characteristics such as elevated heart rates and frequent debilitating headaches. Many of us cope with stress and anxiety on a regular basis – and it’s helpful to know which one is causing the majority of our distress before we start trying to remedy it.
First and foremost, when you experience stress, your mind and/or body are perceiving some sort of threat. Evolutionarily, this likely could have looked like coming face-to-face with a bear near your own children. In this moment, you may have felt your heartbeat increase, your alertness and focus intensify, and your physical body start to feel unusually strong and energetic (the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are behind these experiences). This made sense in context – you needed to escape from the bear to protect your family and therefore prolong your genetic reproduction in the bloodline. In our more modern times, stress often stems from perceived pressures from the external environment, such as worrying that the traffic you’re sitting dead-stopped in is going to cause you to miss your flight, or agonizing over whether that big sales pitch you have to give tomorrow will impress your boss. Anxiety, on the other hand, is typically not associated with one or more specific events – it is a more dull, ever-present feeling of apprehension about a given situation, person, or internal quality in yourself.
The kinds of of fight-or-flight feelings that we know as stress are supposed to be short-term responses. They are supposed to prepare your body and mind for a potential threat – and dissipate when the threat is no longer perceived. The common problem in today’s society, however, is that we are finding ourselves in these stressed states more and more often, and for longer periods of time. This can have long-term, detrimental effects on our brain chemistry if we’re sending our bodies into these fearful, high-stress states too often. These can look like decreased immune system performances, or even developments of chronic anxiety. When the impending threat that initially triggered our stress response disappears, we are supposed to go back to normal – but what often happens in chronic stress – is that you don’t. You end up occupying this threatened, hyper-vigilant state more often than not – and this can lead to a multitude of physical and psychological problems.
On the surface, anxiety may feel very similar to stress because they do have a lot of symptom overlap. However, rather than stemming from specific external pressures like stress, anxiety tends not to be triggered by certain, individual events. Anxiety is typically present regardless of whether there is an immediate threat or not. We usually have a pretty good idea of what or who is stressing us out, but anxiety is often a more diffuse feeling, and can feel like a more expansive, ever-present sense of apprehension, irritability, or nervous worry. It can also occur as an aftermath response to stressful events, but unlike stress, it often persists even after the threat is gone. These residual feelings that just don’t go away can look like worries about similar events happening in the future, or even what’s going to happen now that the event is over. Anxiety can cause us to avoid certain situations, people, or experiences, because of our ever-present state of worry about what will happen if we engage with them.
Stress and anxiety are intimately connected and share many of the same characteristics. However, it is important to understand where your distress is really stemming from – an external source that can be addressed and resolved, or more of an internal thought pattern that rarely seems to go away, no matter what? Knowing the root of the problem can be helpful in fixing its negative side effects.