How to Tell If You’re Anxious or Stressed, and Why You Should Know the Difference

Anxiety or stress

With stress and anxiety often feeling the same, it’s no wonder it can be hard for us to differentiate between them or that we use their terms interchangeably. In reality, though, they’re two very different reactions, and being able to identify which is which can be extremely beneficial.

“Usually, stress is caused by external factors, and anxiety is often worry or distress that doesn’t subside in the absence of an external stressor,” says Amber Rules, director and founder of Rough Patch Counselling.

“For example, stress might be caused by a tight work deadline that dissipates once the deadline is met, whereas anxiety may be a generalised feeling of worry about work that might ebb and flow, but never really goes away.”

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If we are able to discern between stress and anxiety, we may be able to more easily decide an approach to make us feel better, says Rules. We might also be better able to make changes to support reducing our stress and anxiety, and, in some cases, seek professional help with either or both.

To help you identify which is which, ahead, Rules shares four ways you can differentiate between stress and anxiety.

Anxiety Can Result in an Excessive Reaction

While some psychologists believe anxiety is simply an excessive or unnecessary reaction, Rules says she thinks that’s an oversimplification.

“If you feel anxiety, it’s a valid response to something you’re experiencing — or have experienced in the past,” she says. “Unfortunately for people who have a history of trauma or painful experiences, anxiety can go into overdrive as an attempt to protect and prevent any more of these experiences.”

Our emotions are messengers, Rules explains. They alert us to safety and danger, and, in that sense, emotions are neutral – though some cause us more suffering than others. Interestingly, Rules notes that some people are biologically more prone to anxiety, as well.

“Long story short, if you experience anxiety when other people don’t, that’s okay,” she says. “Just make sure you’re getting support from a professional so you can manage it effectively.”

Anxiety Can Make You Unable to Function

The way anxiety is experienced in the body is different for everyone, says Rules. Put simply, anxiety impacts your cognitive function, which in turn makes it difficult to do things you might usually be able to.

“There can be bio neurochemical changes, which make it hard for your body to do the basic stuff it usually does, including effectively utilising neurochemicals to help your mood remain stable,” she says.

“For people who have experienced trauma or prolonged nervous-system stressors, it can have a permanent impact on our ability to settle and re-enter our window of tolerance — the state in which we’re cool, calm, collected and connected.”

Anxiety Can Cause Feelings of Dread

As mentioned, the way anxiety is experienced is different for everyone — including for some, bringing up feelings of dread.

“Dread is often related to shame or fear of humiliation — although not always,” says Rules. “Dread can alert us to a fear that we’re not going to do a good enough job, that we’ll be shamed or embarrassed, that things couldn’t possibly go well for us because they rarely do.”

Essentially, dread attempts to help us avoid perceived threats to our physical, social or psychological safety, but sometimes can get very loud and become a limiting emotion.

Anxiety Could Be Part of a Disorder

Finally, your anxiety could actually be part of an anxiety disorder. The five major anxiety disorders identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition, the book used to officially diagnose mental disorders, are Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Social Phobia/Social Anxiety Disorder.

“It’s really important to note that you don’t have to have a diagnosis in order to experience intense periods of anxiety, and that anxiety is a completely human experience,” says Rules.

“Pathologising emotional experiences such as anxiety can be reductionist and you don’t need a diagnosis to get help with anxiety. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you if you experience anxiety.”

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

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