22/05/2024 by Therapy For You

What is stress & anxiety? The differences, similarities & effects

What is stress & anxiety? The differences, similarities & effects

The terms “stress” and “anxiety” are often used interchangeably. While there is a clear relationship between these feelings, they are distinct conditions – and understanding their similarities and differences is key to finding the right treatment.


Below, we explain what anxiety and stress feel like, how to distinguish between them, and steps to better manage stress and anxiety in your day-to-day life.


What is stress?


Stress is our reaction to events, situations or experiences that are challenging or uncomfortable.


It’s a perfectly normal response and something everyone feels from time to time, whether it’s in the build-up to a test, the completion of a difficult project at work, or the result of an argument with your friends or family.


We often feel stressed when we have little control over a situation or are somewhere outside of our comfort zone. Sometimes stress can be a positive motivator to complete tasks and develop skills.


But if it’s something that affects you regularly long-term, this is known as chronic stress, and can lead to health problems.


What is anxiety?


Anxiety is another natural, common response when we feel overwhelmed, threatened or under pressure.


It’s often described as a feeling of unease or dread, which can happen in anticipation or response to certain events or circumstances, such as social situations.


However, anxiety is an internal response to a perceived threat, and we can feel anxious even if there is no apparent reason to feel this way.


When anxiety persists, it can convince us to avoid situations, impact our relationships and interfere with our day-to-day routines.

  • 74% of people say they have felt “overwhelmed or unable to cope” due to stress in the past year
  • Approximately 6 in 100 people are diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder in England every week

What are the differences between stress and anxiety?


As you can see, there are a lot of similarities between stress and anxiety. Both are emotional responses, and cause a wide range of physical symptoms.


Furthermore, stress is one of the most common triggers for anxiety, and chronic stress can greatly increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.


However, several differences do set them apart:


1. Stress is usually caused by an identifiable trigger; anxiety may not be


The biggest difference between stress and anxiety is how they are triggered.


In most circumstances, there’s a clear, identifiable cause for stress. This will vary from person to person, but common causes of stress include:

  • Work pressures and deadlines
  • Preparing for exams or tests
  • Financial problems
  • Relationship issues
  • Life changes such as moving home or changing jobs
  • Family or parental responsibilities
  • Health conditions

If you’re feeling stressed, you can likely connect this to a specific reason.


Anxiety is different; while it’s very possible for a particular event or experience to cause anxiety, you can also feel anxious without a clear reason as to why.


2. Stress is external; anxiety is internal


The reason for the above difference is that stress is our response to an external cause, while anxiety is our internal response to traumatic events or challenging situations.


This typically means that feelings of anxiety linger and can bubble to the surface at any moment, even when we aren’t faced with something that triggers our anxiety.


Long-term stress can affect us this way, but is far more likely to “come and go” based on the situation.


3. Anxiety is generally more persistent and can grow over time


People with anxiety disorders tend to experience feelings of unease, nervousness and dread on a more consistent, lasting cycle.


Conditions such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) apply here, indicating that someone feels anxious in a variety of scenarios, and not one specific trigger.


Stress, on the other hand, is usually linked to a specific situation. Once these stressors are removed or resolved, stress levels tend to reduce.


4. Stress can be positive in small doses


Finally, stress in small doses can be applied in a positive, motivational way. It can inspire you to meet that deadline or find solutions to problems you’ve struggled with.


Conversely, while anxiety can occasionally help you avoid dangerous situations, its persistence means it’s generally counterproductive, interfering in your daily life, decision-making, and overall wellbeing.


What does anxiety and stress do to your body?


Now we’ve established the main differences between stress and anxiety, how can these feelings affect our bodies?


While everyone’s experience of anxiety or stress is unique, they share several common physical symptoms, including:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Rapid breathing
  • Headaches and muscle tension
  • Excessive sweating
  • Chest pains
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Reduced concentration and memory
  • Increased irritability and frustration
  • Digestive problems
  • Changes in appetite
  • Restlessness

However, anxiety is also linked with symptoms that are less common for stress, such as a general sense of apprehension, dread, and a feeling of impending doom.


Anxiety can also lead to other related conditions, such as panic attacks, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Can stress and anxiety cause long-term health problems?


Unfortunately, chronic stress and anxiety have been connected with numerous long-term health conditions, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Obesity and metabolic syndromes
  • Weakened immune systems
  • Sleep disorders
  • Ongoing mental health problems

How can stress and anxiety affect your life?


Beyond the physical repercussions of stress and anxiety, these conditions can have a much broader impact on your life if they persist for months or years:


Stress and anxiety strain relationships


If you feel overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, you may have noticed also feeling more irritable than usual.


This can lead to communication breakdowns and arguments with your partner, family, friends, colleagues and beyond, which in turn may cause you further stress and hardship.


Focusing too much on stress and worries may also stop you from maintaining healthy connections with those around you, leaving you isolated from people who could help you navigate your challenges.


Stress and anxiety impact daily routines


Long-term stress and anxiety can significantly disrupt the routines you have established.


It may distract you from chores, paying bills and other key tasks, or reduce your motivation for your favourite hobbies.


Stress and anxiety limit performance


Stress and anxiety can cause you to lose concentration and impact your creativity, productivity and decision-making.


This may result in your performance slipping in numerous areas, from academic and work performance, to progress with your exercises.


Stress and anxiety limit social interactions


As well as getting in the way of your existing relationships, stress and anxiety can keep you from events and engagements that might allow you to make new friends.


Particularly if social situations are a source of your anxiety, these scenarios can be incredibly stressful.


What can I do to relieve stress and anxiety?


With stress and anxiety having the potential to affect every area of your life, developing skills to reduce the influence they have on you is important for a happier, healthier and more promising future.


Here are a few useful techniques and practices that can help you better cope with stressful situations…


1. Identify your triggers


As we noted earlier, stress is often tied to a specific trigger or cause.


Identifying and writing down what causes you to feel stressed or nervous can help you anticipate and manage your reactions more predictably.


For anxiety, this may be more of a challenge if you have no clearly distinguishable trigger. Here, talking to a mental health professional can help you understand the underlying causes of your anxiousness.


2. Practice relaxation techniques


Deep breathing. Mindful meditation. Progressive muscle relaxation.


These are just some examples of relaxation techniques that help reduce your stress and anxiety, focused on lowering your heart rate, steadying your breathing and emptying your mind of worries.


But remember, practice makes perfect. These proven techniques are only useful through repetition, so it’s important to make these part of your daily routine.


3. Maintain a healthy lifestyle


Unhealthy habits can make us more susceptible to long-term stress and anxiety. A healthy lifestyle may help you build a strong foundation to counteract these difficulties, so prioritise:

  • A balanced diet
  • A regular sleep routine
  • 30 minutes of exercise per day
  • Limiting your caffeine, alcohol and nicotine intake

4. Seek professional mental health support


When stress or anxiety become a persistent presence in your daily life, it may be time to speak to a professional about how you feel.


Sharing your concerns with a trained, empathetic therapist can alleviate some of the stress you’re under, and provide bespoke techniques and activities that target your precise challenges.


Therapy For You is your NHS Talking Therapies provider for South East and North East Essex. Offering a wide range of effective, lasting treatments for anxiety and stress, we are here to support you every step of the way to a more peaceful, tension-free future.


From our first-of-their-kind digital Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) courses, to face-to-face sessions with an accredited therapist, let us help you find your path to feeling better:

For more about Therapy For You and the support we can provide, get in touch with one of our qualified therapists today.

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