Stress and anxiety: What’s the difference?

We’ve all been there: Whether you’re preparing for a test, working under a tight deadline, or caring for a loved one, both stress and anxiety can quickly become overwhelming. However, Dr. Karen Lawson, a clinical psychologist with Baylor College of Medicine, says it’s important to know the difference between the two.

“Stress is usually thought of as a temporary state, while an anxiety disorder is more lasting, persistent, and pervasive,” she said. “However, stress often contributes to anxiety symptoms and can worsen an anxiety disorder.”

How much is too much?

Not only is stress mentally exhausting, but chronic stress can lead to physical health issues, such as ulcers, migraines and increased risk of heart attack. It can also cause existing conditions to worsen, such as high blood pressure.

stress-anxiety-photoSo when should you be concerned about ongoing stress? Lawson says to look out for these signs:

  • Feeling like you aren’t managing the situation effectively
  • Believing the problem is bigger than you’re able cope with
  • Becoming distracted more easily

Regularly enjoying hobbies, such as reading or yoga, can help alleviate stress.

Signs of anxiety disorder

More than 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental illness. Signs of generalized anxiety disorder include:

  • Excessive anxiety and worry occurring more days than not in the course of several months
  • The person finds it difficult to control the worry
  • Symptoms interfere in one or more areas of a person’s functioning (social, vocational or emotional)
  • Avoiding social settings completely
  • Chronic upset stomach

For individuals with other anxiety disorders, such as PTSD, Lawson recommends seeking a mental health professional with specialized treatment expertise.

How to help a loved one

Concerned about a friend or family member who might be experiencing chronic stress or anxiety? Lawson recommends these tips to help:

  • Ask, “Can I help you?” or “Is there anything I can do?”
  • Say, “It seems like you are worried about something. Do you feel like talking about it?”
  • Your loved one may not want to discuss the topic. In this case, let them know: “If you’d ever like to talk, please know I would be a confidential listener.

“Anxiety and stress are very common. There’s always someone you can reach out to – don’t be afraid to do so,” Lawson said. “Often times, one or two therapy sessions are what’s needed to help get back on solid ground.”

Lawson is an assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor. Learn more about the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic.

Additional Resources

What are signs that you may need to seek therapy?

Why living life to the fullest is possible

-By Nicole Blanton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *