Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
February 17, 2024

Stress vs Anxiety: Differences, Health Impacts, and Signs You Need Help

Stress and anxiety are both normal responses to everyday situations. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel stressed out or anxious about something. However, when stress or anxiety are ongoing or impact daily functioning, they can become a big problem. Understanding the similarities and differences between the two, as well as how to tell whether your levels of stress or anxiety are normal or not, can help you better navigate your mental health and seek support when necessary.

What Are Stress and Anxiety?

Stress usually occurs as a result of something tangible, such as a high-stakes work environment or getting into a fight with your partner. Anxiety, on the other hand, is worry about something you fear you won’t be able to handle. It can be worry about something in the future that hasn’t actually happened yet, or it can be a general sense of dread, fear, or nervousness.

Both can occur occasionally or chronically. Chronic stress or anxiety means it’s ongoing and pervasive: think of a constant underlying buzz that follows you wherever you go. When either stress or anxiety are chronic, they become a problem. They can impact physical and emotional health and lead to various diseases or disorders.

The difference between stress and anxiety

The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

Stress can lead to anxiety. And anxiety can make even relatively benign situations feel stressful. Furthermore, one person’s mild stressor can be another person’s anxiety trigger. It all depends on your nervous system, your history of anxiety, and your coping strategies. Here’s how to tell the difference between stress and anxiety. 

What is Stress?

Stress is a normal mental, emotional, or physical reaction to an external pressure or situation. It’s usually a short-term response to everyday life challenges, and the stress should fade when the external stressor ends or passes. The following are examples of things that might cause stress in your life:

  • A deadline at work
  • Moving
  • Starting a new job
  • Injury or illness
  • Meeting someone new on a date
  • Death of a loved one

If stress can’t be relieved by addressing the specific stressor, or it seems impossible to remove all the stressors from your life in order to manage your stress, then it might be time to get professional help. Severe or chronic stress can lead to major health problems. 

Chronic stress is linked to:

  • Heart health issues, like heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Illnesses, including the common cold
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Chronic pain
  • Muscle tension
  • Digestive issues
  • Memory problems
  • Weight fluctuations or issues
  • Sleep problems
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a more prolonged or generalized response to stress. It can feel like a general sense of apprehension, dread, or worry. Stressful events can often trigger anxiety, but even when the stressor goes away, anxiety may continue. This is because anxiety is perpetuated by a pattern or patterns of thinking, rather than an external stressor. 

Anxiety is typically a combination of physical symptoms, such as sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, or nausea along with emotional symptoms, like spiraling fear, shame, confusion, irritability, dread, or panic. 

Occasional anxiety is normal for most people, and might look the following:

  • Worry that your relationships aren’t going well
  • Fear about finances or losing your job
  • Concern about getting sick or having health problems
  • Fear of embarrassing yourself in public

Chronic anxiety causes similar issues as chronic stress. These include:

  • Headaches
  • Chronic pain
  • Muscle tension
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness and inability to relax
  • Irritability and edginess
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Digestive problems

When to Get Help for Anxiety and Stress

Both stress and anxiety become a problem when they significantly impairs the quality of your everyday life. Ongoing or spiked levels of stress or anxiety can lead to health problems, anxiety disorders, impaired mental health, and prevent you from living your life. For example, you may find yourself unable to attend work, go out with friends, or form new relationships. Or maybe you experience unpredictable and distressing panic attacks that prevent you from being able to function.

Anxiety can be a shape-shifter. It finds ways to sneak into everyday life. You may think you’re worried about an upcoming project deadline at work, but after that deadline passes you immediately become preoccupied by something else. It can be common for people to normalize their anxiety, passing it off as normal or ignoring it altogether. The problem with this method is it prevents you from addressing what’s really going on.

Here are 10 signs you might need mental health support for your stress or anxiety.

  1. Persistent worry, even when you aren’t sure what the cause is
  2. Avoidance of anxiety-inducing situations or events, such as social engagements, dates, or applying for a new job
  3. Your stresses at home or work are negatively influencing the rest of your life
  4. Inability to work or concentrate
  5. Cognitive distortions impact the way you think and what you believe about yourself and the world
  6. Sleep struggles, including inability to fall asleep or inability to stay asleep
  7. Increased irritability
  8. Relationship struggles
  9. Feelings of overwhelm or having too much on your plate
  10. Poor or unhealthy coping strategies, such as substance use, trying to control the situations and people around you, people-pleasing, or perfectionism 

Ongoing Support for Anxiety and Stress

Dealing with chronic or extreme anxiety and stress is painful. Both stress and anxiety can shrink your life down and can cause you to feel isolated, frustrated, and helpless. 

If you want support in managing your mental health, I’m here to help. I offer online therapy and coaching services for anxious clients who struggle with navigating everyday life or specific triggers.

Together, we work through and heal underlying mental health issues while helping you learn healthy coping mechanisms and strategies for your unique stressors and anxieties. I use modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR to address trauma and deal with present-day concerns. No matter where you are, I help you regain control and empowerment so you can live the life you want – without anxiety dragging you down.

Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation and see if we’re a good fit. Let’s start building a better future together. 

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

April 13, 2024

How ADHD Can Worsen Your Mental Health Woes (And What to Do About It)

April 6, 2024

Understanding ADHD vs Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference

March 30, 2024

Feeling Spiraly? 7 Science-Backed Ways to Help Anxiety

Helping millennial professionals dial down anxiety and stress, so they can perform at their best.