The words stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably. Although they are closely related, they have subtle differences. So is your, say, family trouble giving you stress or anxiety? Our mental health experts explain how to tell the difference between stress and anxiety to find the best way to cope.
What you need to know about stress
Stress is your body’s fight-or-flight reaction to a direct stressor, like finishing a project during crunch time or dealing with bumper-to-bumper traffic. “When we’re stressed, our body is stressed in the moment,” says Debra Kissen, PhD, clinical director of Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago. “Our brain thinks we’re in danger and need to deal with it immediately.”
A little bit of stress is totally normal—and can actually be a good thing, says Aarti Gupta, clinical director of anxiety and family therapy center TherapyNest in Palo Alto, California. “Some stress on a person is a normal part of everyday life. This ‘good stress’ called ‘eustress’ can help propel you forward and motivate you to achieve goals,” she says. “Negative stress, or ‘distress,’ is more chronic, hinders optimal functioning, and can be detrimental to your health.” So that nose-to-the-grindstone push at the end of the day can keep you productive, but if you psyche yourself out too often, your immune system could be at risk. These are the ways to reduce stress that could backfire.
What you need to know about anxiety
On the other hand, anxiety is a clinical disorder in which your worries don’t necessarily have a specific trigger. “Anxiety is the sense of discomfort, restlessness, or uncertainty that is internally generated,” says David Spiegel, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry & behavioral sciences, director of the center on stress and health, and medical director of the center for integrative medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. “It’s being a worrier without having the stressors outside.”
Your body could react to both stress and anxiety in similar ways. These include mood swings, feelings of worthlessness, rapid heartbeat, and changes in appetite, Dr. Gupta says. But if you’re experiencing these things often enough that they’re getting in the way of your life, you might have generalized anxiety disorder rather than everyday stress, adds Dr. Kissen. “They feel plagued by worries they can’t control and are occurring more frequently than they would like and are getting in the way of their functioning,” she says. “They spend life worrying about things that will happen.”
Anxiety can pop up around specific situations too. People experience social anxiety disorder appears when there’s no direct danger, but they’re wildly afraid being judged in social situations, Dr. Kissen says. Try one of these tricks to calm your mind during social anxiety.
Anxiety and panic attacks
Panic disorder could make you feel like you’re dying during an episode. This often feels like your chest is tightening and you can’t breathe. “With a panic attack, the ‘attack’ is not caused by a direct stressor and is unprovoked,” Dr. Gupta says. “Because panic attacks are so unpredictable, anticipatory anxiety starts to build regarding when and where you’ll be when the next one happens.” Here’s how to tell if you’re truly having a panic attack.
How to seek professional help
Stress can usually be kept in check with management techniques like meditation, exercise, and sufficient sleep, Dr. Spiegel says. But if you think you have an anxiety disorder, you should seek help from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor.
Seeking help doesn’t mean you’re giving up—it means the opposite as you take positive steps to gain control of your situation. “Some people feel fine and wonder if they’re being dramatic when they do meet the criteria for anxiety disorder,” Dr. Kissen says. “It sounds scary and sounds like we’re so deeply flawed, when it’s just a matter of modern-day living that sometimes our worry and physical sensations of stress creates a lot of discomfort.”
Even if you choose to take medication to ease your anxiety, adding therapy could help make the treatment even more effective, Dr. Gupta says. Treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy explore the thoughts driving your anxiety. They also teach you how to redirect your mind and change your behavior. “Part of what makes anxiety bad is a sense of helplessness,” Dr. Spiegel says. “The minute you start to plan out how to deal with stressors, you start to feel better, even if you haven’t done anything yet.” Give these natural remedies for anxiety a try. (Next, read the 4 scary things that happen to your brain during stress.)