Stress vs anxiety: How are they different — and what are the similarities?

According to American Psychological Association, there is a fine line between stress and anxiety. Both are emotional responses

BySumit Jha

Published Apr 03, 2023 | 10:48 AM Updated Apr 03, 2023 | 10:48 AM

Stress vs anxiety: How are they different — and what are the similarities?

There is a very thin line between stress and anxiety.

The world has now come out and started discussing mental health issues. People freely express their feelings — and issues — but often confuse stress with anxiety.

Differentiating is the key to effective treatment.

Being overwhelmed, constantly worried, and on edge, may make one believe that s/he is experiencing symptoms of ‘anxiety’. But, it may be wrong, Hyderabad-based psychologist Deepthi Nagesh said.

“On further exploration, it often becomes apparent that the root cause of their distress is actually stress,” she told South First.

“While anxiety and stress may share similar symptoms, distinguishing them is critical to provide effective treatment. I have found that many patients are experiencing stress. There are a few common reasons for the confusion,” the psychologist said.

Nagaraj said that one major issue hampering discussions on mental health is a lack of understanding of common conditions and appropriate terms defining them.

“Understanding the difference between anxiety and stress can help patients better manage their symptoms and improve their overall mental health,” she said.

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Difference between stress and anxiety

According to the American Psychological Association, there is a fine line between stress and anxiety. Both are emotional responses, but stress is typically caused by an external trigger.

The trigger can be short-term, such as a deadline at work or a fight with a loved one — or long-term, such as being unable to work, discrimination, or chronic illness.

“Stress is typically a response to a specific event or situation that is perceived as challenging or threatening, such as a deadline at work or an upcoming exam,” Nagesh pointed out.

“It is a normal part of life and can often be managed with healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise, relaxation techniques, or social support,” she added.

People under stress experience mental and physical symptoms, such as irritability, anger, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive troubles, and insomnia.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is more persistent, and often, irrational feelings of fear or unease can be triggered by various situations or even nothing at all.

It can be more chronic, requiring medical treatment, such as therapy or medication.

Anxiety has nearly identical symptoms to stress: Insomnia, difficulty in concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability.

“Often people may not understand that their feelings are related to stress because they may not have experienced anxiety before, or they may not be familiar with the difference between the two,” she further explained.

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Why do people confuse stress with anxiety?

Hyderabad-based psychiatrist Dr. Mazhar Ali told South First that stress and anxiety can have similar symptoms, such as restlessness, irritability, and difficulty in concentrating.

It makes the patient difficult to distinguish between the two.

“In addition, stress can lead to the development of anxiety disorders, which may further complicate the diagnosis,” he said.

Dr. Ali said that anxiety has become a widely recognised term and is often used colloquially to describe any feelings of unease or worry, which may lead the patient to overestimate the severity of their symptoms.

“It’s important to educate oneself about these conditions and seek support if needed. If you’re experiencing persistent feelings of anxiety or stress, seek the help of a mental health professional who can provide an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan,” he said.

Symptoms of stress

According to the Mayo Clinic, these include:

  • Headache
  • Backpain
  • Sleep issues
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Irritability
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Feeling of being overwhelmed
  • Poor concentration and forgetfulness
  • Low energy

Persistent stress can take a toll on the body and is linked to depression, heart attacks, strokes, gastrointestinal issues, hypertension, and obesity.

How to deal with stress

“The first step to take care of stress is to consult a mental health expert because sometimes, the root cause cannot be removed or overcome.

For example, if stress is caused by concerns over the economy or rising cases of Covid-19, then there’s not much one can do personally to fix the issue. “Consult an expert who can help you deal with it,” Nagesh said.

Dr. Ali also suggested that one could deal with the stress only after overcoming the stressors. “For example, if your stress is due to a health concern, make sure that you take your medicine,” he said.

He also suggested regular breaks from social media so that negativity could be avoided.

“Take care of your physical needs, such as getting enough sleep, eating well, drinking plenty of water, and washing yourself. Try deep breathing to re-center your mind and unwind,” the psychiatrist prescribed.

Symptoms of anxiety

Many symptoms of anxiety mimic those of stress. In addition to symptoms such as difficulty in concentrating, irritability, poor sleep, and muscle tension, there are also:

  • Difficulty quieting your thoughts
  • Restlessness
  • Easily fatigued
  • Easily startled
  • Excessive sweating
  • Chest pain

Dealing with anxiety

The first step one needs to make while dealing with anxiety is to visit a mental health expert.

“Anxiety should be diagnosed by your mental health expert —  not some article on Google,” Nagesh opined.

“An expert will talk to you about your symptoms and diagnose any disorder that you might have. For example, if you experience specific symptoms resulting from your anxiety, such as headaches, your doctor can confirm if it is due to anxiety,” Dr. Ali said.

“These symptoms could indicate a different condition. In some cases, so your doctor can review your health and treat any other problem you might be experiencing. The doctor can help you understand your anxiety and work with you to find the best way to handle it. While there is no definite cure for anxiety, there are many ways to deal with it,” he added.