Racing heart, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping – how do you know if you’re dealing with stress or anxiety? The conditions can have a lot of overlapping symptoms, and many use the terms interchangeably. But there are some key differences, and it’s helpful to know what you’re dealing with so you can treat it accordingly.

 

Stress vs anxiety

Stress is typically seen as a response to something that’s going on externally. This may be a short-term issue, such as a presentation you have to give at work, or something longer term, such as caring for an elderly relative or having financial problems. The stress response is designed to help us run away or fight in a threatening situation. Unfortunately, most of us are dealing with constant, low-level stress rather than occasional short bursts, which means our bodies and minds have to cope with a drip-feed of stress chemicals. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation found 74 per cent of people reported feeling stressed to the point of being unable to cope in the past year. 

Anxiety, on the other hand, is usually generated internally. It’s connected to your response to a trigger, rather than the trigger itself. So you may experience symptoms of anxiety even when there isn’t a particular source of worry. It’s your thought patterns that are the main issue, rather than what’s going on in your life. You may, of course, be dealing with both anxiety and stress at times, and stress can tip into anxiety if you’re prone to it. 

The symptoms can overlap – for example, sleep disruption, low mood, appetite changes and racing thoughts, and behavioural symptoms like drinking too much - can occur in both stress and anxiety. With stress, symptoms should ease when the source of your stress clears or reduces. Anxiety is likely to persist, at least on and off, until you’ve found ways to manage it. Panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviour and persistent feelings of doom and overwhelming dread tend to signify anxiety rather than stress.

 

How do you manage stress and anxiety?

When it comes to stress, taking any possible steps to tackle its cause will usually help. If you can do something practical to ease the stress you’re under – for example, getting more help with childcare or delegating jobs at work – that may be enough to improve the way you feel. If you can’t change the situation, you need to take extra care to help your mind and body manage the stress – taking time out, for example.  

Changing a situation won’t usually make a significant difference to your thoughts and feelings in anxiety, because it’s generated from within. Even if you remove yourself from a situation that’s making you feel anxious – such as switching to a job that’s closer to home because you feel panicky on public transport - your anxiety is likely to find something else to attach itself to. Therapy can help you find ways to change the way you think, so you feel less overwhelmed and more positive. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the recommended treatment. It may also be useful in stress, especially in a long-term stressful situation, as it can help you find different ways to think about things, so you can cope better. 

Again, there’s an overlap between managing the two conditions and lifestyle steps can support you in both. Exercise is very beneficial for both anxiety and stress as it helps manage levels of stress chemicals in your body. Looking after yourself well, with a healthy diet, good sleep, relaxation strategies such as meditation, and time to do things you enjoy, is crucial for balanced mental health, and will help you cope with whatever’s going on in your life. It’s also important in both stress and anxiety to avoid alcohol, smoking and junk food.

Whether you think you’re dealing with stress or anxiety, both can have serious consequences for your mental and physical health if you don’t manage them. If you’ve been struggling with difficult feelings for more than a few weeks, and are finding it hard to get on with your life, always see your doctor.