What Is The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety? – Symptoms Chart

Stress: a state of mental or emotion strain/tension resulting from unpleasant or very demanding circumstances.

Anxiety: a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.

These are just basic definitions from Oxford, they may resonate with you or they may not. When I was younger, I had no idea what was wrong, but I know I felt alone and like I was the only one feeling this pain. Since then, I have come to realize that is obviously not true, and I am definitely not alone. I have spent a long time deciphering my own thoughts, emotions, and feelings asking myself “What is the difference between stress and anxiety?”.

Once I started to realize the difference, I spent an even longer time trying to explain my feelings to others trying to get them to see the difference. This can be such a hard task if you are dealing with people who are blessed to live their life free of anxiety and/or ample amounts of stress.

Although the generalized definitions above are true, I have very specific definitions that resonate specifically with me and my personal situation.

Stress and Anxiety

What Stress Means To Me

Stress is brought on by temporary external stressors, the keyword being temporary. When I think of stressors, I am thinking of many things, including, but not limited to the following: a job interview, a birthday party or event I am responsible for planning, buying a new car, buying a house, looking for a new apartment to rent, worrying about a sick pet, or getting into a fight with a friend or significant other.

When I am presented with one of these stressors, I begin focusing all of my attention on the event, giving myself no breaks. I am 100% dedicated to doing the hours of research and preparation necessary to make the most informed decision known to man.

It is honestly ridiculous the amount of time I waste stressing about things that are just temporary! I am constantly giving myself pep talks to reassure me that this too shall pass.

Chronic stress occurs for me when I am dealing with a stressful event that is temporary, but not as temporary as one would hope.

STORYTIME! For example, I just recently went through a very stressful job transition process within less than 9 months. I was promoted after a very extensive promotion process including prerequisite requirements, a written exam, and an oral interview. In search of a better work/life balance and a healthier work environment, I decided to leave that company and I went through multiple interviews to do so.

After roughly 3 months in my new position, I was asked to go back to my old job with another promotion. Coincidentally, I was also presented with another opportunity that was too good to pass up and I ended up going through 2 different interview processes with my old company as well as the new company!

This all happened within LESS THAN 9 MONTHS.

We all know how stressful job transition can be, but for someone who obsesses over stressors the way that I do, the situation definitely turned into chronic stress. I formed a habit of grinding my teeth throughout the day which resulted in headaches, my patience was at an all-time low, my brain was running a mile a minute at all hours of the day.

Being that in my personal situation this is also coupled with anxiety, you can imagine what road this all leads down.

 

What Anxiety Means To Me

Anxiety is brought on by an internal chemical imbalance in the brain. This is something that can be brought on by chronic stress, or learned behavior from a parent/family member. There are studies that have shown it is also hereditary.

When I think of anxiety, I think of an uncontrollable and sometimes unbearable pain/tension in my chest. I think of taking deep breaths multiple times per hour trying to reach for some relief. I think of going weeks at a time without feeling a single second of relief from the weight on my chest, to the point I am fed up.

Weeks and weeks of constant anxiety has led me to short-term depression more than a few times.

When these symptoms started to progress for me, I had already done plenty of research to realize there was no reason for panic. This one simple thing was a game-changer for me.

Breath

“This is just anxiety, there is no reason to panic”.

There were dozens of times the pain was so unbearable I was impressed with myself for keeping this state of mind.

It was extremely difficult to do, but I would simply remember that fact, and start distracting myself. I would tell my friends to turn the music up and don’t focus attention on me. I would continue doing whatever I was in the middle of doing and tell myself it would be fine, and it absolutely was.

Before I knew it, the pain was gone. I know this is easier said than done, but it worked wonders for me and saved me dozens of trips to the hospital for a panic attack. However, this did eventually led to my seeking medical attention as these episodes became too frequent to bear.

The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety For Me

So what is the difference between stress and anxiety? For me, the main difference is that anxiety is completely out of my control. I can not just “get over it” or “stop worrying” with the flip of a switch. Even with dozens of stress management techniques or even during the points of my life when everything is going just right.

There doesn’t have to be an explanation or reason, sometimes it just is, and there is nothing I can do about it. Stress, on the other hand, is something that I am more likely to be able to control with stress management techniques.

 

What Do The Professionals Say?

There are millions of articles to be found online in regard to stress and anxiety, here are some a few points made by researchers and professionals:

 

  • Panic attacks are a result of anxiety, not stress.
  • Stress symptoms subside after the stressful event has passed
  • Anxiety lingers and sometimes requires treatment
  • Stress can come in stages, it is important to realize when you are reaching a state of chronic stress
  • Some stress is a healthy and natural response to a challenge that provides us the adrenaline and motivation necessary to complete tasks.
  • Stress is connected with current events that are causing you to be overwhelmed, while anxiety can be connected with things that may not even be realistic

Stress vs. Anxiety Symptom Chart

STRESS ANXIETY
Difficulty sleeping Uncontrollable and sometimes unbearable tension/pressure/pain in the chest
Nervousness, sweaty palms, fidgetting Excessive Worrying, asking yourself “What if…” constantly. (worrying yourself physically ill). Worrying about things that have not happened yet, or things that are not certain to happen: ex: if someone doesn’t like you, if you fail, if your relationship fails, if you don’t get the new job or the promotion, if you can’t afford to pay your bills, etc.
Noticing a shorter fuse with your temper, feelings of anger or frustration Panic attacks
Short term feelings of being overwhelmed that subside when a stressor has passed Long term negative feelings/thoughts for weeks or even months at a time
Feeling hyper-focused on one specific task or event Difficulty concentrating with no prior diagnosis of ADHD or learning disability

 

Final Opinions From Me

Chronic stress or long term stress can lead to anxiety and it isn’t something that should be pushed to the side or taken lightly. If you are feeling an abnormal amount of stress and are beginning to feel like you’re barely treading water, please do some additional research of your own to become more in tune with your body.

Long term feelings of anxiety can lead to depression.

Utilize the symptom chart above to determine if what you are feeling is stress or anxiety. Do not be afraid to seek professional help. As always, if you have any questions or would like me to elaborate on any of the above-mentioned topics I would happy to do so. I am not a licensed professional, but I have extensive personal experience with both Stress and Anxiety and may be able to give helpful advice.

Seek Help

16 Comments

  • Tom Priesmeyer

    Very interesting, insightful, and helpful article on the differences between anxiety, and stress. I have dealt with both of these conditions, but thankfully not on a large scale. I think your definitions are right on the money, and I empathize with you for the agony that you have had to endure as a result of your episodes. I have done some study on how certain foods can both be a cause, and others can help alleviate these symptoms, and in some cases, even alleviate the causes. For instance, excessive coffee drinking can flog the adrenal glands, and can be a trigger, and a cause of anxiety in some people. Thank you for sharing this important information. Tom

    • Kay

      Thank you, Tom! I am glad to hear you agree with my personal experience, it is always nice to hear you are not alone.
      I actually just made a new post that pointed out the effects coffee and other caffeinated beverages can have on anxiety. Thank you for sharing your insights!

  • Enrique

    Hi, Kay.

    Thanks for sharing. Your article really hit me. I’ve always suffered from stress ever since I can remember. I literally stress over everything. I admire those people who can “suck it up”, but I just can’t do it. I’ve tried really hard to overcome my stress, but I haven’t been successful. That’s why I’ve read tons of articles online trying to look for a solution. I then found out it could be anxiety. While I do not have all the symptoms, I certainly have several of them. It’s a constant sensation that doesn’t let me live.

    Many people don’t understand that these things are beyond us. Stress management techniques haven’t really helped me. That’s another reason I’m afraid it could be anxiety. I’m in my early thirties and I can’t help worrying myself about the future and other things. I know there are things that aren’t under my control, but that doesn’t help much.

    I will continue looking for solutions and look forward to reading more from you. Keep up the good work.

    • Kay

      Hi Enrique, thanks so much for sharing!

      I completely understand where you are coming from with worrying all the time and it truly is a crippling feeling that keeps you from living. When I worry, I feel like I am looking for solutions in my head and waiting until I come up with them before I can stop worrying.

      The best thing I have done for myself is to stop trying to come up with solutions and simply do not allow myself to think about whatever worries I’m having, especially about the future. I take the thought away from myself and think about other things. I allow myself to let that worry go.

      Thanks again for sharing! <3

  • Henderson

    Stress and anxiety have been mixed up severally by different people out in the world. There are many different people who think they mean the same thing when in the real world one can lead to the other but they are not the same. Stress for me is a state of tiredness when I have had a very long series of work that requires physical activity. Anxiety, is a state of fear mixed with a drop of paranoia for me. Nice one to define this.

  • Son

    The two things stress and anxiety can be confusing and sometimes be used interchangeable as if they’re the same thing. I often feel very stressful because of a job where I have to constantly be dealing with customers and their problems, but as soon as my shift is over the stress goes away and I feel fine. So for me anxiety is stuff like constantly worrying about the future, getting sick, kids getting into car accidents, etc. Nice article, thanks for clearing it up.

  • John

    Wow, you seem to have very good knowledge on this very topic. I like the post and admire that you can share here what one needs to know that is the difference between stress and anxiety. I used to think that they are the same in a way. I guess one is only an elevated form of the other. We all go through stress in life and you shared your own story. Do you have a post where you spoke about how to deal with stress?

    • Kay

      Hi John! Yes, I do have a few posts that explain different ways I try to reduce stress in my life. I am hoping to release a new article soon with “A day in the life” story 🙂 

  • Sharon

    Hi Kay,

    You are a very good storyteller! I keep coming back to your site 🙂

    I have been through this all. I can manage stress fairly well but not the anxiety and the panic attacks that come with it. Whenever my phone rings, my heartbeat will increase immediately. It is hard to juggle a demanding job and a family with young kids. Instead of 8 hours, I put in 10 hours sometimes more from home.

    The end story is, I quit my job to be a stay-at-home mom. For my family and health reasons. I developed constant abdominal pain which won’t go away even after several visits to the doctor and clinical examinations. I can manage the pain now because I found that the pain is due to chronic stress, a symptom of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). This also explained my problem with constipation. 

    All is good now and I wish the BEST for you!

    Sharon

    • Kay

      Sharon, I have also experienced stomach pains and constipation issues due to stress! It is just crazy the effects it can have on our bodies and I wish for no one to have to deal with the issues it causes.

  • Jacquie

    Wow, just like that Kay, you have given me so more more insight into when I was diagnosed with anxiety.

    One thing they didn’t explain to me back then, was that a chronic issue that is causing stress can then lead to anxiety.

    Looking back I remember I was so resistant to treatment, because something in me knew that the secret to exiting the anxiety was to get rid of the stressor. It was as though all the treatment was pointing to the fact there was something to fix in my system. I had until then been an anxiety-free individual, and it was all rather strange. 

    I remember saying to the psychologist I don’t need breathing exercises, I need strategies to get me out of this ongoing situation. She didn’t want to enter those conversations, and simply focussed on my anxiety.

    Meanwhile I was hyper-focused on how to remove myself from the situation that was stressing me out. 

    In the end, when I finally got out of it, that was when the anxiety started to reduce, and I could start to work on my health. 

    Thank you so much for this very enlightening article. I hope some psychologists read this because I think it could have helped me more back then, to just have confirmation of this relationship, and maybe referral to a some sort of strategist. 

    Best wishes,

    Jacquie

    • Kay

      I can 100% relate to what you are describing. When I am feeling stuck in situations that I can’t just jump out of with the snap of a finger, I hyper-focus on them until they are resolved – even if that is for months and months at a time. It is so unhealthy and can cause lasting side effects. As you said, they do subside once I am removed from the toxic situation. 

  • Ron

    Hello Kay, Thanks for the informative read. you did a Great Job on breaking down these topics in this article. As You pointed out; it can be confusing as to the differences between stress and anxiety.  Your chart helps to shed some light on this subject, and does it very effectively.

    I have experienced both stress and anxiety in my life (As I think Most of Us have); and It is Important to recognize the difference so we can take action.

    A Very Informative Read.

    Thanks Again, Ron

    • Kay

      Thanks, Ron! As you said, it is really important to know the difference so we know the appropriate steps to take to resolve the issue no matter what that step might be! 

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