Anxiety and stress have some shared symptoms, but they’re not quite the same thing. Understanding the difference between stress and anxiety can help you target and manage each.

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If you’re like most people, you’ve probably experienced stress and anxiety at some point in your daily life. Maybe you were busy at work or dealing with a personal issue involving health or a relationship.

It’s not a nice feeling to be stressed or anxious. If these states persist, they can cause unwanted health effects like elevated blood pressure.

The symptoms of stress can mimic those of anxiety and vice versa. So, it may be helpful to know more about how the two conditions differ to assess then remedy your experience.

Stress is a physiological and behavioral response to an immediate threat or challenge. Anxiety is an emotional feeling and psychological state anticipating the possibility of harm.

An important difference between stress and anxiety is that stress usually has an existing cause. Once that activator has passed, stress typically eases.

A challenge like a busy schedule can cause stress. Difficulties can also be stressful, like having to pay bills while unemployed.

Once your schedule has slowed or you’ve found a job that covers your expenses, your stress likely diminishes.

Anxiety is a worry or dread about things that might go wrong, like the way you could fret about losing a new job.

Anxiety can also linger after an unwanted experience is over and done. Maybe you’ve experienced loss in the past and are worried it will happen again.

Both stress and anxiety can be helpful sometimes. Positive stress can motivate you to be more productive. Anxiety can remind you to pay attention and check your actions and surroundings when anxiety isn’t too overwhelming.

Anxious vs. anxiety disorder

Most people have been anxious at some point in their lives. Anxiety is a fear of something that might go wrong, and many situations can provoke this feeling:

Any time you step out of your comfort zone or routine, you can experience angst. Maybe you’re worried you’ll make a mistake while giving a speech or miss a connecting flight on your vacation. It’s understandable to worry sometimes.

However, if you live with an anxiety disorder, you feel elevated apprehension even when there isn’t a clear cause. Your worry is greater than what most people would feel in a similar situation.

Anxiety disorders include:

Anxiety disorders can interfere with your social life and leisure time. They can impact your job and time spent in school.

For example, a person afraid to fly because of specific phobia would avoid air travel and could miss vacations, family reunions, or important work events.

Someone with social anxiety disorder might find it difficult to function at work or focus while at school. Panic disorder features regular and unpredictable panic attacks that can interfere with your daily life.

Stress and anxiety share symptoms making it difficult to tell them apart, such as:

  • emotional
  • cognitive
  • physical
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Illustration by Bailey Mariner

The shared physical symptoms of stress and anxiety may prompt you to seek medical advice. Chest pain can be worrisome, and headaches uncomfortable. Insomnia leads to sleep deprivation which can worsen both stress and anxiety.

If you’re trying to manage stress, anxiety, or both, a useful first step is identifying what’s causing your discomfort.

For example, your work life might feel overwhelming and be a source of stress. Strategies like anxiety-soothing mindfulness training might help a bit, but your symptoms may continue until you identify and remedy the cause of your strife.

If you feel workload stress, delegating some tasks to co-workers might help more than breathing exercises.

On the other hand, if it’s anxiety you’re experiencing, controlled breathing activities can help. A 2016 study found that participants who engaged in diaphragmatic breathing relaxation training experienced significant reductions in anxiety scores.

A small 2016 study of university students found that mindful breathing practices performed daily helped reduce test anxiety. The study also found that mindful breathing exercises were more effective for producing positive automatic thoughts than cognitive reappraisal practices.

Stress and anxiety share neurobiological links despite the differences in their causes, according to a 2019 abstract.

Self-care strategies for anxiety and stress alike, include:

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If self-care isn’t sufficient to ease the impact of your stress and anxiety, a therapist may be able to help. There are options you can try, like therapeutic methods or medication.

Psych Central has a mental health support page with links to resources such as:

Whether you try it alone or with help, managing stress and anxiety is possible.