There’s a fine line between stress and anxiety. Both are emotional responses, but stress is typically caused by an external trigger. Knowing the difference can ensure you get the help you need...
"You’re working on a deadline when your boss pings you. It’s 3 pm and he wants to know if you have time to help with a project that’s due by 5. You don’t, not really — you still haven’t eaten lunch. “It’s kind of urgent,” he explains, apologizing for the late notice. A pit settles in your stomach, and your thoughts begin to race. “Of course,” you reply. “I’d be happy to help.” It’s not like saying “no” would be any less stressful.
In your head, a voice quickly pipes in to remind you of how poorly you work under pressure. Remember last time, that panic attack? You can’t prepare an entire deck in two days, let alone two hours! Imagine how easy this would be for your coworkers. Why can’t you be more like them? Face it: you’re probably going to be stuck at this job forever.
And just like that, it’s 3:52 pm and all you’ve done is a lot of self-loathing. If you weren’t so busy worrying, the voice reverberates, you would’ve just started the damn thing.
Anxiety? I thought I was just stressed.
Stress and anxiety are related, but not synonymous states. Both are normal, adaptive responses to life’s challenges — work, relationships, mortality, to name just a few — and share many symptoms, including worry, stomach aches, restlessness, muscle tension, racing thoughts, headaches, sleepless nights, or all of the above.
For these reasons and more, we often use the words “anxiety” and “stress” interchangeably. Yet despite their similarities, there are important differences between the two. Determining what’s going on for you is the first step towards finding relief.
Let’s talk about stress.
For one, stress is typically defined as a response to an external trigger, and can either be acute (a tight deadline) or chronic (persistent financial trouble). In an ideal world, the duration of the stress response corresponds with its trigger: Once a stressor has been dealt with, the body can return to its natural baseline state.
Remember the pit in your stomach from before? That’s an example of the stress response, which you might know better as “fight-or-flight.” When you’re triggered by something stressful, your brain floods your body with hormones that push you to react: Blood moves away from digestive organs and into your limbs, allowing you to move more efficiently and quickly. Your heart beats faster and breathing speeds up, bringing more oxygen into the bloodstream.
Stress evolved as a survival mechanism, designed to make it easier for us to fight or flee from life-threatening triggers. Today, even though unreasonable emails do not warrant the same urgency as a hungry tiger on the savannah, our bodies don’t know the difference.
Stress as an alarm signal
While stress might not feel great in the moment, it can be helpful by alerting us to take action when we need to.
Stress takes a negative turn when it doesn’t fade. For many of us, the near constant stressors of modern life, which feel both particularly intense and widespread due to Covid, have led our bodies to respond as though we’re under constant threat, an emotional state commonly referred to as “chronic stress.”
Chronic stress can lead to various other physical and mental health issues, including high blood pressure, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. This is why stress management is so important.
The first step to getting your body back to baseline is pausing, taking a step away from the situation, and recognizing that your body and mind are in a state of distress.
From this place of awareness, you can begin to respond more skillfully to the situation, and be more compassionate with yourself.
So, what’s anxiety?
While the physiological fight-or-flight response is the defining characteristic of stress, anxiety has multiple components, including excessive thinking. The primary distinguisher is that anxiety, unlike stress, is often triggered internally by excessive thoughts — judgments about the past, worries about the future, and so on.
Although it’s unusual to feel unprompted, out-of-the-blue anxiety, it can show up in response to a stressful situation. Take the example of the last-minute request from your boss. For some, this may trigger a “good,” adaptive stress response, which motivates them to get the job done. But for others, that initial pang of stress might unleash a loop of dread, worry, and self-criticism — that fragrant potpourri of feelings is what we call anxiety.
While many think anxiety is just another way we fight with ourselves, and chalk it up to a rabbit hole of worry, overthinking, and shame — it’s slightly more complicated. Like stress, anxiety can be useful as an alarm signal. The discomfort it makes us feel was designed to alert us of something, precisely so that we listen up and protect ourselves.
Luana Marques, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America told me,
“Although anxiety is uncomfortable, it may signal that something’s not working.
[Imagine] if you didn’t have pain receptors and you touched a hot surface — you would burn. Anxiety has that same protective factor that tells you ‘I need to do something differently.’”
If we listen to our anxiety — rather than try to shut it up — we give ourselves an opening to break the vicious cycle. Ask: “What’s going on here? Is there a reason I’m feeling this way, and what can I do about it?”
Needless to say, this is easier said than done. In the throes of anxiety (and even stress), the frontal lobe of our brains, which is usually responsible for cognitive control, goes offline — meaning that we’re less able to think critically and do things like plan, organize, think about the future, and control our own impulses. Instead, the more primal part of our brains takes over.
What’s the difference between stress, anxiety, and an anxiety disorder?
When left unchecked, both stress and anxiety can escalate into more severe mental health conditions. Anxiety disorder, which includes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is the most common mental health condition in the U.S., affecting more than 40 million Americans. Globally, anxiety disorders are also the most common mental health condition, affecting up to one in 13 people.
The basic criteria for determining whether stress or anxiety have become problematic is whether they have begun adversely affecting key domains of your life — such as work or social situations. “Maybe you’re having trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, or have increased symptoms like irritability or sadness,” said Dr. Marques. “As a rule of thumb, those things have to happen for enough time consistently to qualify as an anxiety disorder.”
Whether or not your stress or anxiety feel manageable at a given moment is a highly personal question — especially since some degree of both is actually necessary for us to feel motivated. “Most people can actually pulse check when stress or anxiety become too much,” Dr. Marques said. “When you start to see that regular interference [in your life], that’s usually when it’s time to seek some help.”
While, understanding where stress and anxiety come from, and the difference between them, won’t make your feelings go away, it’s the first and most important step to finding freedom from the discomfort — whether on your own or with a therapist. Because like so many things we do, feel, and think, stress and anxiety can easily become habits, well-worn paths most of us plod down on autopilot.
Make the choice to become aware of these things when they show up in yourself: how they feel, where in your body they live, what triggers them, and so on. When you do that, you’re opening yourself up to curiosity.
Being curious is as close as you can get to the energetic opposite of anxiety. It is expansive, generous, humble. When you’re curious, there’s a whole world out there — an infinite number of paths you can take instead, including asking for support when you need it.
Would you like to learn simple techniques to quiet your mind and to change your attitude towards stress? Get in touch...
This article has been edited. Original by Charlotte Lieberman@HBR