Stress and anxiety are clubbed together so often in the same breath that you might not realise the immense difference that lies between them. You might also be used to using these words interchangeably to describe your condition and emotions. What you need to know is that these are not the same conditions, and even though they’re linked, only a proper diagnosis can help you treat the precise problem you might be facing.
The core difference between stress and anxiety
To put it in the simplest of terms, stress is external and anxiety is internal in its source. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress is caused by external triggers which can be both short and long term, like a work deadline, a fight with your partner, financial problems, living with a chronic illness, etc. Stress is therefore divided into types like acute stress, episodic acute stress and chronic stress. If the stressor (cause of stress) is managed, the stress naturally dissipates.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined as a persistent and excessive worry that exists even in the absence of any direct or apparent stressors. Anxiety usually escalates into severe disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of anxiety are almost the same as those of stress - which is why people fail to distinguish between them. The following are the key symptoms that occur with both stress and anxiety:
The APA says that both mild stress and mild anxiety can be treated through the adoption of coping mechanisms, like meditation, exercise, nutrition, sleep hygiene, etc.
The likelihood of anxiety disorders turning extremely severe due to chronic escalation is quite high, and there are many factors that play into it. Stress buildup in a person with anxiety disorder can lead to a breaking point, for example. Other factors might not even be this apparent. A study in JAMA Psychiatry in July 2020 found that adolescents living in areas that are intensely lit with street lights have disturbed sleep, which in turn increased their risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders by nearly 20%.
Since the risks of severe anxiety disorders turning into extremely debilitating conditions that affect your life deeply are high, it’s important to consult a psychiatrist for guided therapy. Anxiety disorders usually require psychotherapy or medications and sometimes a combination of both may be needed.
However, this is not to say that stress cannot lead to severe and life-long issues like anxiety does. In fact, as a recent study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry points out, early life stress (ELS) can lead to the onset of depressive disorders at a very young age. Another study in Epigenetics in Psychiatry in 2014 shows that ELS due to childhood maltreatment (physical, sexual and psychological abuse) can lead to lifelong anxiety, depression and drug abuse.
Clearly then, neither stress nor anxiety should be taken lightly despite their differences and similarities. Understanding exactly which condition you’re going through, what its severity is and getting professional help on time are the best methods to deal with both of these mental health issues.
For more information, read our article on Anxiety: Symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention.
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