Is it Stress or Anxiety? Here's How to Tell the Difference

difference between stress and anxiety
credit: Matthew Henry

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We’re finally talking about anxiety, and mental health as a whole, but the problem? Many folks are confusing common terms like “anxiety” and “stress”.

I’ve come to this realization after seeing the countless articles on mainstream sites (which shall remain nameless) that tout the latest, buzziest ways to “overcome” your anxiety.

But the straw that really broke the camel’s back was this headline: “This Simple Mental Hack Could Help You Overcome Anxiety.”

This seemingly innocuous headline is actually incredibly harmful. But before I get into the “why,” I think it’s important we all get on the same page when it comes to the difference between anxiety and stress.

(If you feel pretty confident you understand anxiety, feel free to skip the next section).

What’s the Difference Between Stress And Anxiety?

Often, articles will equate anxiety with stress but they are not the same thing at all (although they can go hand-in-hand).

Stress is a universal human feeling that occurs when you are dealing with new challenges or new surroundings. It’s a response that the body has developed over years through evolution as a part of the “fight or flight” response in order to help us survive. It’s meant to be a short-term reaction to an immediate threat.

Symptoms of stress include muscle tension and/or pain, fatigue, upset stomach, sleeping problems, and/or a change in sex drive.

Stress can be treated using meditation, self-care techniques, exercise, and better eating habits

Anxiety, on the other hand, is excessive and doesn’t necessarily correlate with specific events in your life. In other words, anxiety is not a rational, logical emotion. It’s a mental illness. And it’s overwhelming and can be debilitating.

Symptoms of anxiety include difficulty concentrating, headaches, muscle aches, irritability, easily fatigued, sweating, pounding or racing heart, and more. While some of the symptoms of anxiety and stress can overlap, stress is a short-term feeling while anxiety is a chronic illness.

Treatments for anxiety can include meditation, therapy, support groups, meditation, and more.

There are varying degrees of anxiety as well as different types of anxiety disorders. The most common type of anxiety is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Additional types include Social Anxiety, Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Agoraphobia, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). These can often be very serious, lifelong disorders.

anxiety stats
Source: National Institute of Mental Health

Anxiety Doesn’t Come With a ‘Simple’ Fix

Ok, so back to the headline: “This Simple Mental Hack Could Help You Overcome Anxiety.”

For anyone who has suffered from true anxiety, the idea of “a simple fix” is not only insulting but stigmatizing. Those with mental illness have probably already tried anything and everything to deal with their anxiety. So implying that there’s a “simple” solution can make someone feel like, Well if the solution is so simple, why aren’t I fixed yet? What’s wrong with me?

I’ll be honest: I’ve had these thoughts. I have both GAD and social anxiety under my belt. I’m on medication (no shame in my pill game!) but that isn’t a magic fix. I’ve tried everything on every list to deal with my anxiety. So when I run down the list and still find myself struggling, I sometimes think, What the hell is wrong with me? Why isn’t this working?

We need to stop acting like there’s an easy fix to mental health. There are no amount of listicles that can help you beat a lifelong disorder. Yes, there can be helpful ideas somewhere among the list of garbage. But we need to recognize that anxiety is complex and it needs a complex solution.

So if you struggle with any form of anxiety, ditch the articles written by novices like me and start seeking out professionals. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a good place to start.

Additionally, an emotional support animal (ESA) is a great way to provide comfort and reduce symptoms in those who are in need. To receive the help they deserve, those seeking this type of assistance need an ESA letter from their mental health specialist. For example, If you live in Colorado you need to obtain an ESA letter in Colorado Springs, from a licensed psychologist.

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Lena Finkel
Lena Finkel is the Editor and Founder of Femestella and The Feminist Health Source. Prior to starting Femestella, she worked at People, InStyle, Tiger Beat, and Sesame Workshop (aka Sesame Street). She loves all things Real Housewives and The Challenge. When she's not busy binge-watching TV, you can find her taking an absurd amount of photos of her tuxedo cat Tom.