Stress Versus Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference and When to Ask for Help

April 30, 2021

We’ve all experienced stress — it’s simply part of the human condition. While stress is normal, chronic stress may indicate that what you’re actually experiencing is anxiety. To find out the differences between stress and anxiety, and how we can cope with both, we spoke with Christopher Huff, LCSW, behavioral medicine specialist at Jefferson Health – New Jersey.

The Differences Between Stress and Anxiety

When thinking about stress versus anxiety, it’s important to remember that stress is simply our mind’s perception of a threat. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a response that occurs because of that perception. “Once a stressor goes away, the stress typically dissipates with it,” says Huff. “But anxiety is persistent. It will most likely continue in the absence of a stressor.”

Imagine you’re stressed about taking an exam. Once the exam is over, you’re probably no longer stressed about taking that particular exam. But your anxiety surrounding test-taking may still exist long after you complete the exam.

Common Sources of Stress and Anxiety

People can feel stressed and anxious about many different things. In general, the most common categories of stressors are:

  • Employment
  • Finances
  • Family
  • Relationships
  • Health

“The pandemic has given us a particularly unique backdrop for stress and anxiety. Not only is the virus and the pandemic itself stressful, but it also has impacted many of the things people are already stressed about—employment, health, relationships, finances and more,” says Huff.

How Stress and Anxiety Appear

While stress and anxiety both occur because of a perceived threat, they usually manifest differently in the body. “When you’re stressed, your body typically responds with a physical reaction, like the constricting of certain muscles,” says Huff. Some of the common symptoms of stress are:

  • Headaches
  • Clenched jaw
  • Hunched shoulders
  • Stomachache or feeling of your stomach in knots
  • Back pain and tightness

Anxiety shows up in the body as arousal and stimulation. “When people are anxious, they’ll often feel jittery, on-edge and unfocused. They may not be able to sit still or may be experiencing sleeplessness,” says Huff.

Dealing with Stress and Anxiety  

For those experiencing stress or anxiety, there are healthy ways to cope. “I always tell patients to stick to the basics. This means keeping up with your hygiene; drinking plenty of water; eating two to three meals per day; making sure you’re getting enough sleep; and trying to move your body,” says Huff.

These coping strategies don’t require a huge amount of effort, but they can make a big difference when dealing with stress and anxiety. Huff also suggests reaching out to someone you trust to talk to if you’re feeling stressed or anxious.

If your stress is causing dysfunction in your daily life — such as impacting your sleep, your performance at work or your eating habits — it may be time to reach out to a professional.

Treatment options for anxiety may include therapy, medication or a combination of both. “The important thing to know is that stress and anxiety are normal. We’re all going to experience them. But when it becomes unmanageable, healthcare professionals are here to help,” says Huff.