Am I Anxious or Just Stressed Out?

It’s normal to feel stressed sometimes. But if you’re really struggling, it can be hard to tell whether you’re stressed or dealing with anxiety. 

So, what is the difference?

Stress consists of physical and mental symptoms that are a reaction to external pressures or problems. Symptoms can include fatigue, irritability, sleeping issues, digestive problems, and muscle pain. On the other hand, according to the American Psychological Association, anxiety can be defined as apprehension and physical symptoms of tension in which a person expects looming danger, catastrophe, or misfortune. Anxiety is mostly triggered internally (i.e., excessive worrying thoughts) and can be present with or without an external stressor.

Signs of anxiety

Anxiety and stress can feel similar, especially when the symptoms are mild. Symptoms of anxiety include muscle tightness, insomnia, difficulty concentrating and irritability. So how do you know if you’re anxious? 

If your feelings were triggered by an external problem (e.g., a big work project) but continue to linger after the problem has been resolved, that’s a clue you have anxiety. Another sign is that you have persistent, excessive, hard-to-control fear or worry in situations that are not threatening. For example, having a constant fear of being fired from your job, not being able to pay your rent and eventually becoming homeless despite getting positive feedback from your boss.

Having panic attacks are another sign of anxiety. Not everyone who has anxiety has panic attacks, but they are normally connected to anxiety, as opposed to stress. Symptoms of a panic attack include chest pain, trembling, chills, and a racing heartbeat. People often feel like they’re dying or having a heart attack when they have a panic attack. 

It’s important to note that not all stress is bad. Good stress can help you achieve your goals. It is usually inspiring, motivating, and temporary. Meanwhile, bad stress impacts your day-to-day life, is crippling, and can be chronic. It can also negatively affect your physical health (e.g., headaches, high blood pressure, and weight gain). Acute stress is short-term – but when stress becomes chronic, it can take a toll on your body and lead to anxiety.

How to cope

Similar coping strategies work for both mild anxiety and mild stress. Getting more sleep, exercise, deep breathing, meditation, positive thinking, and connecting with your social supports (i.e., friends and family) can be helpful. You can also shift your perception of your stress and anxiety by accepting things you can’t control. 

You don’t have to deal with this alone! If your anxiety or stress symptoms are negatively impacting your daily life and are not responding well to your coping methods, you can reach out to a mental health professional or your Primary Care Physician. Therapy and medication can be helpful tools for managing anxiety and stress so don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

Not sure if you have anxiety or if you’re just stressed? Take a screening. It’s quick. It’s free. It’s anonymous.

By Gina Aimey-Moss, MA, CPHQ