How to Differentiate Symptoms — Talkspace

How to Know If You’re Dealing with Stress or Anxiety

Knowing the difference between stress and anxiety is easier once you understand more about each condition. Anxiety and stress are both parts of the body’s natural fight or flight response system, which is controlled by the brain’s limbic system. When we feel threatened, our bodies release stress hormones. Those hormones cause our heart rate to increase, which results in increased blood circulation to the limbs and organs.

The stress response prepares you to either fight or run away from a threat. Your breathing becomes quicker and more shallow. Your blood pressure rises. At the same time, your senses become sharper as the body releases special nutrients into the circulatory system so that the entire body is charged with energy. This stress process happens almost instantaneously, and its effects are powerful. 

Anxiety, however, is the body’s response to the stress process. It’s typically marked by feelings of unease, dread, or distress, like something harmful might happen at any moment. Because each person has different stressors, naturally, there are different types of anxiety, like social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, etc.

These responses might kick in when you’re faced with an emotional or physical threat, even if that threat is just imaginary. While the process is necessary for our survival and health, if it happens too often or too intensely, it can cause problems in our daily life.

One of the main ways to tell anxiety from stress is duration. Stress typically self-resolves within a short time. Anxiety can last longer, and its cause is often difficult to discern. If you’re experiencing repetitive symptoms and can’t tell whether they’re stress or anxiety-related, you might want to consider seeking help from a mental health professional.

“Anxiety can be triggered by stress, of course, but it can also resonate internally on its own, without a trigger, due to a perceived or imagined fear. Stress is often linked to a known source such as work, a relationship, or even a challenging situation. Working with clients to identify and manage both can truly empower a growth mindset rather than feeling stalled by dysregulation.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW

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