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

We’ve all experienced the dreaded “stress headache” that develops after we’re finally conquered the latest stressful circumstance. It’s very common to worry about something on your to-do list until it’s finally checked off.

But some of us keep worrying even after crossing off the task. You should be able to stop thinking about it now — it’s over. But you can’t.

Is what you’re feeling just a case of major stress? Or could you have anxiety without even knowing it?

Thankfully, there are a few key differences between the two. There’s also such a thing as ongoing stress, sometimes confused for anxiety even though their symptoms aren’t the same.

The difference between stress and anxiety

Anxiety

Anxiety | iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

Stress is the result of an external complication or event. Anxiety is an internal response to ongoing stress. While stress ends once the external factor does, anxiety doesn’t usually go away.

Let’s say you’re responsible for giving a large presentation to a room full of executives at your job. You’re nervous about this presentation; you worry about it nonstop as you’re putting it together and even up until the minute before it starts. But once it’s over, you feel fine — almost as if it never happened. That’s stress.

Anxiety would continue causing nervousness, worry, sleep problems, and other issues even after you finished the presentation and put it behind you. What did they think of it? What if you did something wrong and don’t know it? What if they didn’t like it and your boss is going to call you into their office and expose all your flaws and possibly even fire you? Should you just quit now before things get worse?

That, in its most extreme form, is anxiety. It lingers after the main stressor has subsided, continues to interfere with your daily tasks and invade your thoughts, and may even cause one or more panic attacks because of the internal conflict it has created.

But what if the stressors keep coming? How can you tell if it’s morphed into anxiety?

What is chronic stress?

What if your main stressor keeps coming back to haunt you — for example, you now have to give a work presentation every week and experience the same stress response each time? Is this ongoing stress still just stress, not anxiety?

Ongoing stress like this is called chronic stress. It can lead to health issues such as insomnia, high blood pressure, and even heart disease. Like anxiety, it can feel as though you can never find relief.

But chronic stress still develops and continues because of a stressor you could technically control. This is not the case with anxiety. True anxiety can’t be fixed or decreased by eliminating one stressful circumstance, such as changing jobs. It will continue to take over your life even if you start a new job or never have to give another presentation again.

The symptoms of chronic stress are the same as “normal” stress; they just last longer. Symptoms of anxiety can escalate to something as severe as a panic attack.

Can you manage anxiety without medication?

Anxiety medication

Anxiety medication | SIphotography/iStocks/Getty Images

Many people with professionally diagnosed anxiety disorders can benefit from medications that help them manage their symptoms. But their side effects aren’t always worth the relief.

It is possible to learn to manage your anxiety without having to rely on medication. Experts recommend making changes such as establishing a regular exercise routine, keeping a set sleep schedule, and avoiding substances such as caffeine that might trigger or worsen anxiety symptoms.

However, don’t change how often you take your medication or stop taking it altogether without taking with your doctor first. They may or may not agree that your dosage could be decreased or that you could manage without it.

But chances are they can likely help you develop strategies and acquire the additional resources you might need in order to do so safely and effectively.

And if you’re living with continuous anxiety and don’t know how to manage it on your own, it’s OK to ask for professional help. Just because you have anxiety doesn’t mean you immediately have to start taking medication, have to take it forever, or have to take it at all.

Whether it’s chronic stress with a modifiable cause or legitimate anxiety,

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