Are you truly anxious or just super-stressed? Here’s how to tell


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Photo: Getty Images/JGIJamie Grill; Graphics: Well+Good Creative

Once you’ve ironed out the the differences between stress and anxiety, actually figuring out which one you’re experiencing in the moment is Part II of understanding your mental health. And to be honest, it’s not easy.

Want proof? Here at Well+Good, we recently conducted a survey of almost 2,500 readers. And while about 86 percent of people reported being able to distinguish between these two mental health foes in general, the average reader admitted that it was difficult to identify which one plagued them specifically. Full transparency: No one here at the office was 100 percent sure either, so we asked a psychologist for the best way to check in with yourself.

“Anxiety comprises emotional, physical, and cognitive elements. Stress and worry are the cognitive portion of anxiety.” -Erika Groban, PhD

First, says Erika Groban, PhD, a clinical psychologist at a private practice in Rye, New York, remind yourself of the definitions of each one more time. “Anxiety comprises emotional, physical, and cognitive elements,” she says. “Stress and worry are the cognitive portion of anxiety.” In other words, stress can exist all on its own. But when it’s also coupled with physical and emotional responses as well, you’re likely experiencing what’s called “situational anxiety.” (This is a little different from an anxiety disorder, which often doesn’t have a cause and involves you feeling almost constantly anxious.) 

What exactly are the physical and emotional anxiety symptoms to look out for? In general, excessive sweating, trembling, rapid heart beat, trouble sleeping, and difficulty controlling your worries are all potential signs that you’re dealing with anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Again, it’s one thing to understand this in theory. As for figuring out what’s going on with you in the moment, Dr. Groban has a few example scenarios to help decipher the difference for you:

Scenario #1: You hear a rumor that there will be layoffs at the company where you work.

Stress: The news makes you concerned that you might lose your job.
Anxiety: You’re having heart palpitations and trouble sleeping, and you’re terrified that you won’t be able to find another job if you lose this one.

Scenario #2: You are your partner have been fighting a LOT lately.

Stress: You’re worried that a breakup is imminent.
Anxiety: You’ve got perpetually sweaty palms and are constantly on the verge of crying. You’re convinced that if you do break up, you’ll never be able to find love again.

Scenario #3: Your child’s teacher calls to tell you that your kid has been withdrawn and anti-social lately.

Stress: You’re worried that your child isn’t happy at school.
Anxiety: You feel sick to your stomach and are having trouble concentrating, and you often find yourself studying your child’s moods.

Once you have a sense of which you’re experiencing, you can seek the help you need—from a therapist and/or from your own support network (friends, family, etc.).

“Overall, it’s important to remember that anxiety, stress, and worry are normal aspects of the human condition,” adds Dr. Groban. “Our culture tends to ignore the emotional and physical elements of anxiety, as these are the ones that tend to have more of a stigma.” This might account for why 16 percent of those who took the survey said they kept their mental health struggles to themselves. But the truth is: Breaking the silence about your own mental health is oh-so-important, both for you and for your fellow human beings who are likely experiencing the same thing.

Before starting new mental health meds, make sure to ask your doctor these questions. And here’s how your diet plays into the whole brain health equation

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