Stress vs. anxiety: How to tell the difference


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While the terms stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably, and while there’s some overlap in the symptoms, they actually don’t mean the same thing, says the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Anxiety disorders affect nearly five per cent of the household population, while stress is much more common, according to an Ipsos poll finding. And the differences don’t stop there. Here’s how to tell one from the other.

DISCLOSURE: This advice is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare practitioner. Always seek medical advice that is specific to you and your situation.

Same coin, different sides

Understand that stress and anxiety (and to a lesser extent, worry) are different sides of the same coin. While they are connected and both affect your nervous system, they are also distinct conditions with different approaches to treatment.

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The Canadian Mental Health Association describes stress as a natural (and often useful) physiological response to an external threat. Stress is what signals our body to focus, and to go into fight, flight or freeze mode to help us navigate away from the threat and to safety.

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Anxiety on the other hand is what happens when our body responds to stress and it includes a strong cognitive element (our mind). Like stress, anxiety is a response to a threat, only that threat isn’t easy to identify; there isn’t anything specific or easy to blame.

It’s important to keep in mind that there is a difference in feeling anxious and having clinical anxiety. Feeling anxious can happen daily to many of us (i.e. such as when we know we have a public speaking engagement), while clinical anxiety is much more severe, and debilitating, and requires clinical treatment.

Symptoms of stress

According to the the Mayo Clinic these include:

  • Headache
  • Back pain
  • Sleep issues
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Irritability
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Feeling of being overwhelmed
  • Poor concentration and forgetfulness
  • Low energy

Over the long term, stress can take a toll on the body, and is linked to depression, heart attacks, strokes, gastrointestinal issues, hypertension and obesity.

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Symptoms of anxiety

Many of the symptoms of anxiety mimic symptoms of stress, which is what makes the two so easy to confuse. In addition to symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, irritability, poor sleep and muscle tension, there is also:

  • Difficulty quieting your thoughts
  • Restlessness
  • Easily fatigued
  • Easily startled
  • Excessive sweating
  • Chest pain

Over the long term, anxiety can cause impairment in other areas of your life, such as socializing or going out, working or moving about in your day-to-day routine.

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The root causes

While the symptoms for stress and anxiety may be similar, their root causes are different. Stress is primarily prompted by an external trigger or situation (such as the loss of a job, an argument with your significant other, or an upcoming exam).

Stress isn’t always temporary. Short-term stress is known as acute stress, and some stress can be long-term; poverty, an ongoing health condition, or systemic discrimination are examples of chronic stress.

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Anxiety has a physiological component, but is often triggered in our minds by excessive and persistent worry that does not go away, and can occur even without an external trigger, says the Mayo Clinic.

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It can result from a prior traumatic event, and some of these thoughts may centre on persistently reliving the traumatic event in our minds, despite our best efforts. It can also centre on events that haven’t yet happened, but that we feel certain will happen (even if there is no objective indication to suggest that).

The treatments

For acute stress, you can try exercise, which helps your body recover from a surge of cortisol, a stress hormone, and adrenaline, what sends our body into a fight, flight or freeze mode.

Prioritize sleep, and try redirecting your thoughts on aspects of your life you can control instead of ruminating on what you can’t control. For more ideas, try these 10 stress-busting techniques.

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The treatment for anxiety is a little more complicated as people can experience it differently.

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According to CAMH, there are a wide range of anxiety disorders, including different types of phobia, and a generalized anxiety disorder.

A mental health professional can help you identify what’s going on in your individual case, and help you find the best way to treat it, perhaps with cognitive behavioural therapy, exposure therapy and other approaches.

In terms of actions you can take to help put yourself on a better path, limit your coffee, alcohol, sugar and other stimulants that have been shown to affect anxiety negatively.

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Stress has an external trigger or situation that is much more easy to identify, is often a temporary condition, and is easier to treat. Anxiety also has physiological symptoms, but has a strong mental component too, without an easy-to-spot external trigger. It is much more complex to treat, and can be debilitating.

Both stress and anxiety are extremely common in Canada, but while most people experience stress, fewer people have clinical anxiety.

© 2022 Slice, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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