Stress and Anxiety 101: What’s the Difference Between the Two Mental-Health Issues?

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Though it's great that society is in an era of championing mental-health authenticity and awareness, extreme stress and anxiety are still all-too-common states for so many folks (stress is literally keeping millennials up at night, after all). But even with so many celebs, like Selena Gomez and Bella Hadid, getting real about mental-health struggles and the internet (sometimes unfortunately) at our fingertips, it’s still easy to confuse stress and anxiety.

Simply put, they’re both traumatic states of emotional and psychological strain driven by a vague feeling of impending doom or upcoming deadlines. There are, however, huge differences between the two that are important to note since best practices for approaching and treating the conditions are hardly one and the same.

Here's the lowdown on stress and anxiety—and how to handle both.

What exactly is stress?

The most notable difference between anxiety and stress is that stress almost always comes with an identifiable cause, according to therapist and social worker Scott Dehorty, executive director at addiction and mental-health treatment facility Delphi Behavioral Health. “Stress is caused by a situation or frustrating thought,” he says, adding that it’s essentially a reaction to a stressor and dissipates when the situation is resolved.

“Stress is caused by a situation or frustrating thought.” —Scott Dehorty, executive director of Delphi Behavioral Health

Additionally, psychologist and anxiety expert Danielle Forshee, PsyD, notes that even those who lead high-stress lifestyles find time to decompress, meaning the seemingly all-consuming state of worry is not actually absolute. “During these moments [of reprieve from stress], they’re able to have fun, they’re able to not worry about things going on, and they’re able to live their life to a certain extent," Dr. Forshee says.

And, this ability to turn off the light on stress, so to speak, is a key difference between it and anxiety. 

And what about anxiety?

When people use the word "anxiety," they're likely referring to one of two things: A general feeling of anxiousness that just about every person experiences at one point or another or a clinical anxiety condition. Dr. Forshee calls the former state "situational anxiety," which is "when an incident happens in your life that results in feeling extremely emotionally distressed, being very worried about the future and the present, and having emotional responses and fears that seem out of control." It's essentially extreme stress or stress that has spiraled beyond "normal" extents to create a lot of mental anguish, though it subsides after a short period of time.

Approximately 18 percent of the country's adult population (40 million people) suffers from an anxiety condition, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Anxiety conditions, however, are different and are among the most common mental illnesses in the country; approximately 18 percent of the country's adult population (40 million people) suffers from one—though only 37 percent of those who suffer receive treatment—according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). The most common type, according to the Dehorty (as well as the ADAA), is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) which affects a little more than 3 percent of the US population, with women twice as likely as men to have it. Unlike with situational anxiety, which is usually marked by brief moments of extreme anxiousness driven by a causal factors, when someone suffers from GAD, "their worry thoughts and physical symptoms of anxiety do not dissipate in frequency or intensity," Dr. Forshee says.

Other types of anxiety include social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and agoraphobia, though there are many more. In general, Dr. Forshee says all anxiety disorders can cause "excessive worry, thoughts and feelings of apprehension that make the person feel very emotionally distressed, and make them have a lot of fear about things that may or may not happen."

How can I tell if I have an anxiety condition or if I'm stressed out?

Differentiating between stress and anxiety can be difficult since, according to Dehorty, their physical long-term manifestations both include "decreased energy, gastrointestinal distress, insomnia, low immunity, and depression." But there are some telltale signs: While with stress, certain stressors can often be identified with a line of causation, "an anxiety condition will be more consistent and pervasive, with no need for any situational stimuli," he says. Dr. Forshee adds that if you have an anxiety condition, you likely experience the symptoms of situational anxiety, except "on a nearly daily basis, most of the day," instead of just on occasion. Basically, anxiety can just happen and persist without any warning signs.

If you have an anxiety condition, you likely experience the symptoms of situational anxiety, except "on a nearly daily basis, most of the day," instead of just on occasion. —Dr. Danielle Forshee, psychologist

Dr. Forshee notes that untreated anxiety can lead people to "feel very on edge and restless, have a hard time concentrating, easily tired, irritable, have muscle tension or have difficulty with sleep." And, if you're having a hard time carrying out the functions of your daily life—at work, with your S.O., even doing the dishes—due to distress derived from anxiety, she says it's probably time to see a professional.

Okay, so how do I treat what I've got?

Dr. Forshee says that while tools for stress management differ from person to person, they should be effective for the long-term—practices that are more about "lifestyle rather than things that you do every once in a while when things get bad." It's essentially figuring out your own self-care needs, like "positive social supports, healthy eating habits, physical activity" as well as anything that creates opportunity for new and enjoyable experiences.

But if stress is not well managed, Dehorty cautions that it can build and manifest anxiety. The two can then feed off each other—the anxiety will cause more things to be interpreted as stressors, which will continue to compound the anxiety until "the individual is overwhelmed and run down physically and emotionally." There are a number of ways to treat anxiety, though, according to Dr. Forshee, "the gold standard" is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a form of psycho-therapy, and medications are sometimes introduced at the discretion of a psychiatrist. 

If you're struggling with an immense amount of stress or suspect that you are suffering from anxiety or depression, experts recommend you see a psychologist or a psychiatrist, who can properly assess, diagnose, and treat you.

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