Feeling exhausted, on the edge and losing sleep over something that’s playing on our minds – we have all been there at some point. Whether it’s a project deadline you are chasing at work or an argument with a loved one you’re still reeling from, stress is very much a part of day-to-day modern life. Anxiety, too, is an experience related to the same ‘fight, flight or freeze’(1) response as stress, and it certainly seems to be a rapidly growing epidemic, with an estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults(2) experiencing anxiety disorder symptoms at some time in their lives. In 2013, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK(3) alone.

Looking in from the outside, the two can look eerily similar, so here’s what you need to know so that you differentiate between the two and decide on your course of action.

What is stress?

Stress is a reaction to an external trigger that one finds it hard to cope with and it is a short-term experience(4), which gets over when the threat or stressor has passed. It can play out positively in some situations, such as when it helps you pull off that looming deadline, but results in health problems if you’re constantly stressed out.

Changes such as moving houses, planning a wedding or having a baby can create stress as can events like losing a job or being diagnosed with a serious illness. We usually know what we’re stressed out about, so targeting those factors is a good way to tackle it. 

What are the signs of stress

The signs of stress include feeling irritable, wound up or lacking in self-esteem. You might deal with racing thoughts, difficulty in focusing and making decisions, mentally, and face physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, dizziness and stress exhaustion(5).  

What is anxiety?

As per the National Health Service, UK, “Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or fear. Everyone feels anxious at some point in their life, but for some people it can be an ongoing problem(6).” Anxiety is actually a reaction to stress(7).

It doesn’t just go away on its own once the stressor is mediated; it hangs around for much longer and focuses on not just fears about things that could be a threat, but also anxiety about anxiety(8). If left untreated, it can cause ‘significant impairment in social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning’(9).

What are the signs of anxiety

Anxiety symptoms which are psychological can include feeling uneasy or worried a lot of the time, needing constant reassurance from people, feeling tearful and being extra alert. Since the human body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol when one is feeling stressed or anxious, an increase in heart rate and sweating may also be noticed. 

Other physical symptoms of anxiety include chest pains, a loss of appetite, heart palpitations (or an irregular heartbeat) and headaches. Read more on symptoms of anxiety here

What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

The key differences between stress and anxiety are:

  1. Stress is usually a short-term experience caused by external factors, that ends when the stressors are mediated, while anxiety persists for a longer period of time. 
  2. Anxiety is a reaction to stress, and one eventually becomes less aware of what they were stressed out about and it’s the actual reaction to the stress that becomes the problem. 
  3. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “All anxiety disorders have one thing in common: persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening.(10)” 

As David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, told Huffington Post, “The key difference [between the two] is the sense of helplessness … By rolling up your sleeves and tackling that stress, you can feel less helpless.”

  1. Anxiety or panic attacks are a sign of anxiety, not stress. The National Institute of Health’s U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that “a panic attack begins suddenly, and most often peaks within 10 to 20 minutes. Some symptoms continue for an hour or more.” 

Why should one care about knowing about stress and anxiety

You’ll notice that many of these situations we’ve spoken about in this article are very relatable. It is very normal to struggle to cope with stress or deal with anxiety, and it is unfortunate that the stigma around speaking openly about mental health is only now being shattered when a fraction of the world population is facing it. 

Simply put-

Knowing about what stress and anxiety are, and the difference between the two, can empower you to decide whether you just need to take a few minutes off and focus on taking deep breaths or go ahead and book yourself an appointment for help from a medical professional.

In other articles in this series on stress, we take a look at the various factors contributing to stress and anxiety, how stress hormones function and why stress affects different individuals in different ways. We also delve into stress management in our articles on how better food habits, regular physical exercise and meditation can help destress.