Are Anxiety and Stress the same?
Symptoms of stress and anxiety can be very similar and it can sometimes be difficult to identify which one you are experiencing.
If you have quite a stressful job or lifestyle, you may find it difficult to differentiate between feelings of stress and an anxiety disorder.
In this guide, we will explore both stress and anxiety, their symptoms and how you can treat both conditions.
So without further ado, let's explore stress and anxiety.
What is stress?
Stress can be described as feeling under too much pressure mentally and emotionally.
You may feel overwhelmed, irritable and tired.
Stress is commonly caused by a trigger, such as deadlines, a stressful job role, money trouble and relationships.
Stress causes a surge of hormones within your body to enable you to cope with the trigger that caused you to feel stressed - this is known as the fight or flight response.
Usually your stress symptoms will improve after the trigger such as an important deadline, has passed.
However, if you are feeling frequently stressed or you are constantly stressed, these hormones will remain in the body.
Although stress itself is not an illness, if it isn't managed or your symptoms are severe, it can lead to serious illness.
If you are struggling with stress, it is important to speak to your doctor to discover treatments and coping techniques to help you to deal with your stress in a healthy way.
Signs of stress
Stress can cause a variety of physical and mental symptoms.
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Muscle pain or tension
- Stomach or digestion issues
- Chest pain
- Increased heart rate
- Decreased libido and issues with sex
Behaviour changes caused by stress include:
- Feeling irritable
- Sleeping too much or not enough
- Eating too much or too little
- Relying on unhealthy habits, such as alcohol or cigarettes
Mental symptoms include:
- Difficulties concentrating
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Constant worrying
If your stress is severe or constant, you may experience what is known as 'burnout'.
Burnout is when you are exhausted physically, emotionally and mentally due to severe or prolonged stress.
When you experience burnout, you may feel very tired, run down and that you are unable to cope with everything going on in your life.
It is important to be able to identify signs of stress in order to find suitable coping mechanisms to prevent burnout and to help you manage stress in a healthy way.
What is anxiety?
Everybody feels anxious from time to time, such as before an important meeting or when sitting an exam.
However, for some people, feelings of anxiety can occur frequently and without an identifiable trigger.
If your feelings of worry or fear are constant or irrational, you may have an anxiety disorder.
There are different types of anxiety disorders, including Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder.
One of the most common anxiety disorders is Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which is a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about lots of different things, rather than one particular trigger or event.
The most common symptom of Generalised Anxiety Disorder is feeling worried or fearful most days and finding it hard to relax.
You may not be able to remember the last time you felt calm and even when away from stressful situation, such as work you may find it difficult to switch off and relax.
Similar to stress, anxiety can cause a variety of mental and physical symptoms including:
- Restlessness or feeling unable to relax
- Feeling like something bad is about to happen
- Feeling worried or on-edge
- Finding it difficult to concentrate or focus on anything
- Feeling irritable
- Heart palpitations or increased heart rate
- Muscle pain and tension
- Dry mouth
- Excessive sweating
- Digestion issues
- Pins and needles
- Sleeping issues
Anxiety is a very common condition and there are lots of options available to you to help you manage your symptoms.
If you experience any of the following symptoms for more than 2 weeks, book an appointment with your doctor.
They will be able to go through your symptoms with you, provide a diagnosis and help to identify the best treatment options for you.
What causes stress?
There are many factors that can cause stress and they differ from person to person.
Your stress may be due to:
- Pressures from work
- Big changes in your life
- Lack of control in a situation
- Overwhelming responsibilities
- Issues in your relationships
- Setting unrealistic expectations for yourself
If you don't know which specific triggers are responsible for your stress, the NHS recommends writing down your stressful episodes for 2 - 4 weeks, ensuring you take note of:
- The time, date and place of the episode
- What you were doing at the time
- Who was with you
- How you feel emotionally
- Any thoughts you had
- What you started doing when the stress started
- How you physically felt
- Rating your stress from 0 - 10 with 10 being the most stressed
These notes will help you to identify any common triggers, how you are coping with your stress and better coping mechanisms you could use.
If your stress is severe, these notes could help your doctor to identify the best treatment for you.
What causes anxiety?
Feeling of constant or severe anxiety is usually a result of an anxiety disorder, such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
We don't really know the exact cause of Generalised Anxiety Disorder, but research has suggested that these factors could have a part to play:
- The area of your brain that is responsible for emotions and behaviour being overactive
- An imbalance of serotonin and noradrenaline, which are responsible for controlling and regulating mood
- A history of stress or trauma
- Painful long-term health conditions
- A history of alcohol or drug misuse
Anxiety can be caused by certain triggers or phobias such as change, crowds, small spaces and speaking to and being around other people.
If you notice that you are finding it hard to relax or anxiety symptoms are making everyday life difficult, it is recommended that you keep a diary and write down how often you feel anxious and any potential triggers.
If you experience anxiety symptoms for 2 weeks or more or you are finding it difficult to remember the last time you felt relaxed, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Differences between anxiety and stress
So far in this guide you may have noticed that symptoms and causes of both anxiety and stress are very similar.
However, one of the biggest differences is that an anxiety disorder is a mental illness, whereas stress itself isn't an illness.
Another main difference is that stress is usually caused by an identifiable trigger, such as work, whereas anxiety can be irrational or without a trigger.
Conventional stress tends to last for as long as the trigger is present, whereas generalised anxiety can be long-term and can be felt constantly.
How can I relieve stress and anxiety
One of the first things you can do when you have identified that you are struggling with stress or an anxiety disorder is to speak to your doctor.
They will be able to suggest coping strategies, treatments and medication that is available to help you manage your symptoms.
Therapy such as, CBT or counselling may help you to learn more about your symptoms and triggers and help you to manage them in a healthy way.
You can also try various self-care methods such as:
- Reading self-help books or taking online courses for anxiety or stress-management
- Regular exercise
- Learning to relax through using meditation or breathing exercises
- Avoiding caffeine
- Avoiding smoking or drinking
- Joining a support group
- Utilising a helpline
Now you know the difference between stress and anxiety
So, in short, anxiety and stress are similar, but not the same.
Although they share a lot of the same symptoms and both can be managed with self-care and healthy coping mechanisms, they are 2 different conditions.
Stress may not be classed as an illness, but it is important that you seek advice for managing it if you experience symptoms of stress frequently.
If stress is not addressed, it can lead to illnesses and mental health struggles, so speak to your doctor if it is having a negative impact on your life.
Similarly, if you ignore your symptoms of anxiety or do not seek help, they can lead to your symptoms worsening, feeling out of control and you may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
You are not alone and there is a lot of help and advice available to you for both stress and anxiety.