What’s the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

Stress or anxiety disorder? Occasional stress is normal, but if you’re constantly freaked out, it might be something more serious, like an anxiety disorder.

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May 4, 2022 UPDATED
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We’re probably all somewhat familiar with anxiety and stress—perhaps we've even experienced them both in our lives.

The words anxiety and stress are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation, but they aren’t the same thing.

To mistake one for another in casual conversation isn’t a big deal.

However, to treat them as one and the same when you’re struggling to manage symptoms can cause problems.

Not sure whether you’re suffering from anxiety or are merely stressed out?

In order to answer that question, you have to understand the difference between stress and dysregulated anxiety first. 

We have stressful days at work or get stressed out when our partners don’t get along with our friends.

We prioritize our self-care, take baths, drink tension-taming teas, light stress-relieving candles, and tell ourselves that someday soon we’ll de-stress for good.

It’s a physical and emotional response to external challenges, and modern life is challenging.

Everyone gets stressed sometimes, but how do you know if you have a more serious issue with anxiety?

We’re also familiar with anxiety , or at least we think we are.

“Anxiety” is a term that gets tossed around: We blame looming deadlines, complicated family situations, and sensational news headlines for giving us anxiety.

Our tendency to conflate stress and anxiety most likely stems from the fact that symptoms of stress and anxiety are nearly identical.

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What's stress?  

On the most basic level, stress is a response to demands from the outside world.

Acute short-term stress stress is a response to the pressures, time constraints, and responsibilities we encounter at work, at school, or in our family and home lives.

Stress manifests itself physically and emotionally. 

Common symptoms include:

  • insomnia

  • muscle pain

  • irritability

  • fatigue

  • digestive problems 

When you’ve got too much on your plate, you may notice your shoulders tightening and your temper shortening.

That said, routine stress is part and parcel of daily life and, for the most part, it comes and goes.

Distress, aka the "bad stress," is brought on by sudden changes.

Unexpected negative circumstances like loss, illness, getting fired, or a sudden breakup can lead to more debilitating symptoms.

Though more severe and longer-lasting, these stress responses also diminish when they are monitored and managed with relaxation, exercise, and emotional support. 

Feeling stressed often leads to having anxiety, but anxiety can live on in the absence of stressors. 

Healthy amounts of stress can keep us motivated, safe, and productive.

Long-term chronic stress, however, is a serious health risk.

Living with constant stress takes a toll on our bodies and can lead to physical illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Chronic stress can also lead to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders.

Our bodies and minds are designed to experience stress in certain situations, but not to undergo a chronic string of stress responses.

When we exceed our limit, we risk developing disorders, including anxiety disorders.

What's anxiety? 

Like stress, symptoms of anxiety also include insomnia, muscle pain, irritability, fatigue, and digestive problems.

Mild anxiety is a part of life and can be triggered as easily as routine stress is.

We can all expect to experience occasional anxiety; it’s natural to get anxious before a big presentation or on the way to meet your partner’s parents.

This standard worry comes and goes and can usually be managed on one’s own. 

However, symptoms of anxiety can manifest even when there’s nothing concrete to be worried about.

Sleeplessness, tension, irritability, and negative thoughts can present themselves with or without external triggers. Feeling stressed often leads to having anxiety, but anxiety can live on in the absence of stressors. 

The persistent, trigger-independent nature of anxiety sets it apart from stress.

That’s because moderate to severe anxiety is a baseline state of excessive worry. It’s one thing to worry about something like an upcoming deadline, and entirely another to be worried in a general, unfocused way on a daily basis.

The persistent, trigger-independent nature of anxiety sets it apart from stress. You might think of anxiety disorders as the result of stress that gets stuck in gear and keeps going after stressors are gone.

Chronic, severe anxiety can make daily life incredibly difficult if untreated, and it poses serious health risks.

These protracted, intense waves of anxiety are often diagnosed as anxiety disorders . When one has an anxiety disorder, the anxiety doesn’t go away with the stressor.

How common are anxiety disorders?

Statistics published by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) show that 19% of American adults had an anxiety disorder in the early aughts.

The authors of the study projected that 31% of adults in the U.S. will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

Common anxiety disorders include Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, and Phobia-Related Disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health disorder in the United States.

A Monarch by SimplePractice infographic stating that 31% of adults in the U.S. will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Those suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) feel excessively worried and anxious almost every day for six months or more.

Sufferers may feel anxious about any and every aspect of their life, even seemingly insignificant ones, like what to have for dinner. They may have trouble sleeping, feel wound-up, become irritable, and have difficulty concentrating.

These symptoms may intensify over time and lead to significant behavioral changes. 

Panic disorder

People with a panic disorder experience recurring panic attacks.

During a panic attack, sufferers are completely overwhelmed by anxiety and experience accelerated heartbeat, sweating, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, and the feeling of loss of control. 

People with panic disorder often go out of their way to avoid situations in which an attack could be triggered. That means steering clear of certain people, places, and social situations. This avoidance can lead to the deterioration of relationships and the development of phobias. 

Phobia-related disorders

These are diagnosed when patients experience specific, debilitating fear that stems from their anxiety. Social Anxiety Disorder, for example, is an intense fear of social settings and social performance that leads people to avoid social interaction.

Agoraphobia is a fear of the outside world that may lead sufferers to avoid being in public spaces alone, riding public transportation, or being in crowds. These phobias make engagement with the world incredibly difficult.

Of course, increased isolation also puts sufferers at risk of other mental health conditions like depression. 

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How do I know whether I have an anxiety disorder or I’m just stressed out?

If you are able to pinpoint specific stressors and notice that symptoms come and go as life events are managed and resolved, it’s likely you’re experiencing stress.

If symptoms arise as an immediate response to an external trigger, you may be stressed or dealing with mild anxiety. 

If you’re worried on a daily basis for weeks or months on end and are unable to manage your symptoms, you may have disregulated anxiety.

Similarly, if you’re worried and can’t figure out exactly why, you may have dis-regulated anxiety. If panic attacks, sleeplessness, irritability, tension, and negative thoughts and moods begin to change your behavior, you may have an anxiety disorder. 

Managing stress and anxiety is incredibly important when it comes to mental and physical health.

Understanding the difference between stress and anxiety and their respective symptoms should help shed some light on whether it’s stress or anxiety that ails you.

However, the only way to be certain is to get a diagnosis from a mental health professional. 

Managing stress and anxiety is incredibly important when it comes to mental and physical health.

If you feel you’re not adequately coping on your own, seek a consultation, and consider whether therapeutic treatment is right for you. 

Find out if you have anxiety symptoms

To help you determine if you have symptoms of an anxiety disorder, take Monarch’s 2-minute free anxiety evaluation .

Need to find a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety? Check out the Monarch Directory by SimplePractice to find licensed anxiety therapists near you with availability and online booking.

Article originally published Feb 11, 2022. Updated May 4, 2022.

APA. (2019). What’s the difference between stress and anxiety? Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-anxiety-difference

Gale, C., & Davidson, O. (2007). Generalized anxiety disorder. BMJ, 334(7593), 579–581. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39133.559282.be

Harvard Medical School. (2020). National comorbidity survey. Retrieved from https://www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/ncs/index.php

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2020). Anxiety disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders

NIMH. (2017). Any anxiety disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml#part_155097

NIMH. (2020). 5 things you should know about stress. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml

Taylor, C. B. (2006). Panic disorder. BMJ, 332(7547), 951–955. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7547.951

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