Stress and anxiety: related, but not synonymous states

We often use the words “anxiety” and “stress” interchangeably. Both are normal, adaptive responses to life’s challenges and share many symptoms ( for example, worry, stomach aches, restlessness, muscle tension, racing thoughts, headaches, sleepless nights, etc.)

But despite their similarities, there are important differences between the two. And knowing the differences is the first step towards finding relief.

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  • It is designed to make it easier for us to fight or flee from life-threatening triggers.
  • Stress is usually defined as a response to an external trigger, and can either be acute (a tight deadline) or chronic (persistent financial trouble).
  • While stress might not feel good in the moment, it can still be helpful by motivating us to stay alert and take action when we need to.

Anxiety is mostly triggered internally by excessive thoughts (for example, judgments about the past or worries about the future).

Like stress, anxiety can be useful in the right scenarios. The discomfort it makes us feel was designed to alert us of something, precisely so that we listen up and protect ourselves.

When left unchecked, both stress and anxiety can escalate into more severe mental health conditions.

  • Anxiety disorder, which includes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is the most common mental health condition in the U.S., affecting more than 40 million Americans.
  • Globally, anxiety disorders are also the most common mental health condition, affecting up to one in 13 people.
  • The basic criteria for determining whether stress or anxiety have become problematic is whether they have begun adversely affecting key domains of your life.

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