Stress vs. Anxiety: What’s the Difference & How to Treat?

By Irmanie Hemphill, MD, FAAFP
Medically reviewed
July 29, 2021

Everyone experiences stress, and everyone experiences anxiety: Both are natural human emotions, and they’re part of how our bodies respond to threat.

The difference: Stress is a reaction to a situation outside your body, while anxiety begins as an emotional response within your body that lingers after a stressful situation has resolved itself. 

People experience stress for all kinds of reasons. Stressors in your daily life—short-term difficulties with work or school, conflict with a loved one, uncomfortable social situations, or even just being late to an appointment—can all trigger physical symptoms in your body.

In those circumstances, the feelings usually dissipate when the stressful situation resolves itself. 

When a person experiences more profound, prolonged, or chronic stress due to grief, poverty, serious illness, discrimination, overwork, job loss, or unemployment, they should consider taking steps to manage or mitigate their symptoms.

Otherwise, their stress response can devolve into longer-term complications that threaten their physical and mental well-being.

Anxiety is an internal, persistent worry, a sense of nervousness, trepidation, tension, or dread.

These feelings are sometimes triggered by stress. The emotional feelings of anxiety are usually accompanied by physical symptoms and will linger long after any real or perceived threat has passed.

Normal anxiety is short-lived and manageable. However, when someone has anxiety symptoms that are intrusive, excessive, or escalate with time, they have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health issues in the United States. More than 18% of the population deals with some form of anxiety disorder every year.

Chronic stress and long-term anxiety are treatable conditions, but it’s good to know what you’re experiencing before you talk to your health care professional about an effective treatment plan. 

In this article, I’ll explore what stress and anxiety are, the symptoms of both, and treatment options for these conditions. I’ll also provide some guidance on when to see a doctor.

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What are Stress & Anxiety?

Stress and anxiety are a part of the “fight or flight” response to threat. When you are in a challenging or charged situation, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, commonly called “stress hormones,” that help prime you to take action. 

When you are experiencing stress, an external stimulus or situation drives your body to release these stress hormones.

As a result, you may feel temporarily irritable, angry, or afraid,. You may also experience aches and pains or other physical issues.

The good news: Your mood and symptoms will lighten once you have moved away from the person, place, or thing that caused you to feel stress.

Anxiety, on the other hand, originates internally. It may be related to a stressful encounter, but it can also occur in the absence of a specific threat and linger long after a threat is gone.

It has many of the same emotional and physical symptoms that stress does, but they can be more persistent and excessive.

When someone’s anxiety escalates and becomes intrusive, burdensome, or challenging to manage, they have an anxiety disorder.

In life-threatening situations, being physically and emotionally ready to respond to threats is useful. Anxiety keeps humans from falling prey to dangerous animals and environments because it gives us the tools to perceive threats in advance.

Our stress response is helpful, too, making sure we can act quickly if something scary occurs. 

For most people in today’s world, mild, manageable stress or anxiety can still be helpful once in a while. If either feels excessive, though, it’s important to seek treatment.

Health care professionals can help create a plan that can help you manage your feelings and feel relief.

Symptoms

Stress

Stress symptoms can be emotional, psychological, behavioral, and even physical. Individuals are different, and people under stress may not feel every symptom every time. But many people under stress report experiencing:

  • Apprehension, worry, or nervousness
  • Avoidance, loneliness, depression, or sadness
  • Chest pain or a rapid heart rate
  • Difficulty focusing 
  • Difficulty relaxing 
  • Disorganization
  • Dizziness
  • Exhaustion or difficulty sleeping
  • Excessive sweating
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed or unhappy
  • Hair loss
  • Headache 
  • Intense alertness or agitation
  • Irritability, anger, frustration, or a short temper
  • Muscle tension
  • Nail-biting or other nervous behaviors
  • Procrastination 
  • Rash
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomachache, nausea, or diarrhea

Anxiety

People who have anxiety report experiencing many of the same symptoms, including:

  • Avoidance or procrastination 
  • Chest pain and rapid heart rate 
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Digestive difficulties, including constipation or diarrhea 
  • Dulled responses or dissociation
  • Excessive sweating
  • Hair loss
  • Intrusive thoughts or worry
  • Muscle tremors or trembling 
  • Nervousness, trepidation, fear, or dread
  • Rapid breathing 
  • Restlessness or tension 
  • Sweating 
  • Weakness or fatigue

How to tell the difference between the two

Stress and anxiety feel similar but originate from different sources.

When trying to tell the difference between the two conditions, remember that symptoms of stress develop in response to externally stressful stimuli, and will go away when the stressor goes away.

Anxiety symptoms originate internally and come and go whether or not a stressor is physically present.

If you or someone you know is experiencing chest pains, difficulty breathing, or any other signs that could signal a heart attack, call your doctor or visit your nearest emergency room immediately.

Anxiety Disorders

Doctors characterize generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as an excessive, unwarranted, and outsized worry cycle out of a patient’s control.

Patients will often focus their worry on money, health, family, or work, but they may shift their focus from time to time. 

Patients with an anxiety disorder called a panic disorder experience episodic and debilitating panic attacks as a part of their condition.

In those cases, patients are suddenly seized with overwhelming terror, even when there is no danger present. 

When someone develops anxiety around a specific and particularly shocking, traumatic, or troubling life event, they may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If someone has anxiety that manifests as unwanted, intrusive, or obsessive thoughts, ideas, sensations, or behaviors, they may have a mental illness called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a persistent fear or worry linked to social situations like meeting new people, talking in public, or performing an action in front of others.

Patients with SAD fixate on social challenges rather than other types of stressors.

Treatment Options

Stress and anxiety may be difficult and unpleasant to experience, but doctors can help you manage your condition with a wide range of medications, lifestyle changes, and talk therapy. 

Psychotherapy

Seeking the professional help of a mental health professional, particularly one trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is a proven way to reduce the effects of chronic stress and anxiety.

Your therapist will help you break down negative thought patterns and learn ways to recognize and manage your physical and emotional symptoms. 

Lifestyle Changes 

Many people who experience stress or anxiety find relief by making lifestyle changes that help them control their feelings.

Taking the time to get enough sleep, engaging in physical activities like yoga, practicing mindfulness and meditation, and performing deep breathing exercises can make a big difference in how your body handles difficulties.

Eating well and avoiding alcohol and caffeine can help you experience less stress, too.

Medication

There are various homeopathic remedies and prescription medications available to help you manage your symptoms and feel calmer. 

  • Herbal Remedies: Some patients find that drinking lavender, lemon balm, or chamomile tea can effectively calm the stress response and find some relief. Others use essential oil aromatherapy or take herbal or nutritional supplements to help them quiet their mind.
  • Prescription Medications: If you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a doctor or psychiatrist can prescribe the proper medication to help address your concerns. Treatment plans commonly involve sedatives, antidepressants, beta-blockers, or antihistamines. 

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When to See a Doctor

Although chronic stress and anxiety symptoms are well-understood and highly treatable, less than 37% of people who suffer from these conditions seek medical help.

If you believe you are suffering from the unpleasant effects of stress or anxiety, talk to your doctor or mental health professional about ways to help you manage your condition and alleviate your symptoms. 

Stress and anxiety are among the most under-reported and under-treated diseases in America. Nearly 20% of adults in the US suffer from mental health illness, and fewer than half receive treatment. Our mission is to increase access to treatment for those suffering in silence.

You can start controlling your stress and anxiety and get access to the treatment you need with K Health. Starting at $12/month, get prescriptions for mental health medications plus unlimited doctor visits through the K Health app. Start your free assessment here.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Irmanie Hemphill, MD, FAAFP

Dr. Hemphill is an award winning primary care physician with an MD from Florida State University College of Medicine. She completed her residency at Halifax Medical Center.