Is It Stress or Anxiety? 5 Ways to Tell the Difference

June 23, 2022

Stressed woman with her hands on her head

We’ve all been there … a racing mind, tense muscles, trouble sleeping, a tight chest or maybe even some indigestion. It doesn’t matter whether the cause is a looming deadline, your toddler throwing a tantrum in public or the mounting pile of bills that haven’t been paid. You feel stressed or anxious — or both. Wait, what exactly are you dealing with? And does it matter whether it’s stress or anxiety?

Actually, it does make a difference, according to MU Health Care’s Dr. Nikole Cronk, psychologist, and Dr. Laquita Morris, family medicine doctor. Knowing whether you’re experiencing stress or anxiety can guide treatment, give a sense of what to expect and provide a sense of control.

To help you understand what’s happening, Dr. Cronk and Dr. Morris explain five differences between stress and anxiety.

1. Anxiety Triggers Differ From Stress Triggers

The first step in understanding what you’re feeling is identifying what’s setting you off. Stress is the body’s physical or psychological response to an obvious trigger or situation. Maybe your boss calls an unexpected meeting in 30 minutes. Or you’re home alone with three kids and one of them gets hurt and needs to go to the emergency department. Many people would be stressed in these situations.

Anxiety is the body’s response to a perceived threat or stressor — and not everyone may agree that the trigger is stressful. Let’s say your little one just boarded the bus for his first day of school. While he’s gone, your mind is all over the place. What if no one is nice to him? What if he doesn’t like the lunch you packed? What if he can’t get into college?

“In terms of the trigger or stimulus for anxiety, it's not that it doesn't exist,” Dr. Morris says. “But it's the reaction you have to it. Two people can be exposed to the same trigger. But if you have a predisposition to anxiety, your reaction might not be proportional to the situation.”

2. Everyone Experiences Stress, but Only Some People are Anxiety-Prone

The chances that you’ll develop anxiety depend on many factors. Among them are who your parents are, how you grew up and what environment you live in now.

“We know that anxiety is partially heritable, and some of it’s going to come from your parents’ DNA,” Dr. Cronk says. “But then there are some learned components as well — we are affected by the modeling that happens around us.”

For example, if your dad always focused on making sure the house is locked, checking the doors may become a learned habit for you. If you’ve also inherited a tendency for anxiety, unlocked doors may become anxiety-provoking.

“Keep in mind that while genetic makeup and environment have an influence, it’s not a guarantee for anxiety,” Dr. Cronk says. “Parents shouldn’t be concerned that their worries or anxieties are going to automatically create those problems for their kids.”

3. The Symptoms of Anxiety are More Likely to Impact Your Ability to Function

A stress response certainly affects how your day or week goes. But the stress tends to come and go as the triggering situation passes.

If you’re dealing with anxiety, you may notice it increasingly affects your ability to function at work or at home or within your relationships. “You may feel like your thoughts or actions are interfering with your ability to connect with your partner, for example, because they think you’re stressing out about everything, all the time,” Dr. Cronk says. “We might start to think about this as an anxiety disorder creating these problems.”

Some signs of anxiety are obvious, but others can be sneaky — mimicking serious physical conditions. Anxiety may cause:

  • Chest pain
  • Inability to focus
  • Insomnia
  • Panic attacks
  • Tremors
  • Trouble breathing

4. The Health Effects of Stress on the Body Can Be Devastating Over Time

While anxiety symptoms can interrupt day-to-day functioning, regular bouts of stress can increase your risk of serious long-term health issues. Chronic stress elevates your body’s levels of the steroid hormone cortisol.

“When you're exposing your body to excessive amounts of cortisol, it can have a devastating effect on the larger organ systems such as the heart, liver, kidneys and blood vessels. It can also lead to more serious mental health issues,” Dr. Morris says. “Being able to manage those stress levels is vital to your life.”

Excessive cortisol and chronic stress can also cause more immediate problems. High cortisol levels may affect pregnancy outcomes and increase the risk of morbidity and mortality for both mom and baby. The behaviors used to cope with chronic stress — excessive drinking, overeating and drug use — can also be concerning.

5. Treatment for Anxiety Is Not the Same as Stress Management

Both stress and anxiety warrant a visit to the doctor to rule out other issues and to identify which condition to treat. “What you might perceive as stress might be something completely different,” Dr. Morris says. “And if I have someone coming for chronic stress, I’m going to treat them differently than someone who has generalized anxiety disorder.”

Treatment for stress often involves lifestyle management, including:

  • Coping strategies
  • Environment modifications
  • Mental health counseling
  • Psychotherapy

Treatment for anxiety may involve medication or therapy, or both, including:

  • Breathing techniques and progressive muscle relaxation for panic attacks
  • FDA-approved medications
  • Psychotherapy

“There are lots of strategies that primary care providers, psychologists and other mental health professionals can teach about how to cope effectively with anxiety and stress,” Dr. Cronk says. “Opening that conversation with your provider can help you see stress and anxiety for what they are — they aren’t weaknesses, and they don’t have to lead to other problems.”

Next Steps and Useful Resources

  • Want to discuss stress or anxiety with a primary care provider? Find one today.



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