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Stress vs. Anxiety: What's the Difference?

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — May 8, 2019 — 3 min read

As Americans, we’re known for leading busy, often stressful lives. Taking time to relax and decompress can help reduce the harmful emotional and physical symptoms of stress.

Sometimes, though, it’s more than stress. It’s coming from inside, and it’s not leaving. It’s that feeling of dread that just won’t stop even when there’s nothing threating or bothering us.

That’s when it may be something more than stress. It may be anxiety, one of the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions in the United States. 

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Approximately 42 million Americans, or roughly 18.1 percent of adults 18 and older, have an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). About 25 percent of adolescents ages 13 to 18 experience anxiety, according to the NIMH.

Here are some of the differences between stress and anxiety.

Origin

Stress: External causes include financial trouble, marital problems, job loss, a fight with a friend, etc. Stress usually diminishes after the external concern has subsided or a problem is resolved.

Anxiety: Internal origin, a persistent feeling of apprehension or dread in nonthreatening situations that does not go away after the concern has passed. Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.

Symptoms

StressEmotional: Anxiety, fear, irritability, anger, resentment, loss of confidence
Cognitive: Difficulty making decisions, confusion, repetitive thoughts
Physical: Dry mouth, tremors, sweatiness, pounding or racing heartbeat, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, muscle tension, headache, dizziness
Behavioral: Loss of sleep, nervous habits including eating too much or too little, nail biting and drinking more coffee or alcohol than usual. 

Anxiety: Anxiety produces all of the symptoms seen under stress/chronic stress, but also panic attacks, which mimic heart attack symptoms, including chest pain, sweating, feeling faint, nausea, chills and breathing difficulties. They happen suddenly and peak within 10 minutes (to be safe, never hesitate to call 911). Anxiety symptoms often interfere with school work, job performance and relationships.

What it can lead to

Stress: Untreated chronic stress can result in serious health conditions including anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system, according to the APA. Stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression, and obesity.

Anxiety: In severe cases, anxiety can become an anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People with anxiety disorders are six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders. They are at twice the risk for heart disease compared to people without these conditions.

What to do/Treatment

Stress: Find ways to manage stress such as physical activity, breathing exercises, adequate sleep and taking time connect with others. Psychology Today also recommends listing stressful situations and how you feel when they occur, and then developing strategies for preventing or diffusing stressful situations.

Anxiety: Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment, according to the ADAA. Several standard treatment approaches include therapy, medication, complementary alternative treatment, and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

Best Advice

Stress: When you’re living with chronic stress, you will likely benefit from supervised care and should consider seeing a licensed mental health professional.

Anxiety: If you think you have an anxiety disorder, you will likely benefit from supervised care and should consider seeing a licensed mental health.

 
You can save or print this information with the infographic below.

Infographic with comparison of stress versus anxiety.
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Sources:
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
American Psychological Association (APA)
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