Stressed out and anxious? What's the difference?

Posted on September 20, 2018 by Marsha Molinari, MSW, LICSW

Updated October 31, 2023

Stress and Anxiety

I get a lot of questions in my private practice about stress and anxiety. Questions like, “How do I know if I am just feeling stressed out or if I have anxiety?” “Is there a difference?” I can say with confidence—everyone experiences one or both at one time or another.

Stress and anxiety go hand in hand and are often used interchangeably. Stress can be related to the same ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response as anxiety and the physiological symptoms of anxiety and stress can be similar. Both stress and anxiety can lead to exhaustion, lack of focus, insomnia, irritability, muscle tension, diarrhea and headaches. However, there is one major symptom differentiating anxiety from stress. Anxiety induces an untiring feeling of dread, doom and/or apprehensiveness—stress does not.Stress-Anxiety

What is stress?

Stress occurs when our body and mind respond to life’s pressures and challenges. The feeling of stress can be a warning sign usually associated with frustration and nervousness. When a person is over-stressed, they may or may not know what they are stressed about, but the feeling will usually disappear when there is a reduction in the number or stressors in a person’s life.


“Stress is like a spice–in the right proportion it enhances the flavor of a dish. Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you.”

Donald Tubesing

Stress can be either a positive or negative experience. If the stressor is dealt with, it can be a motivation to help make a change in how a person perceives a situation or challenge. However, if the stress becomes unreasonable it can negatively impact daily life.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a mental health concern, can develop as a negative effect of stress and can continue long after the stressor is gone. Anxiety is not always related to anything particular and often comes from a place of fear, worry and an uneasiness that seems out of control. The symptoms of anxiety do not disappear as easily as the symptoms of chronic stress. Both anxiety and chronic stress can originate from any situation or thought that creates a feeling of frustration, anger or even anxiousness.

“Anxiety is a lot like a toddler. It never stops talking, tells you that you are wrong about everything, AND wakes you up at 3 am.”

Author unknown

Both anxiety and stress can have a similar impact on the body and mind. The medical theory for the development of anxiety is due to internal and/or external stressors over time. The brain and body attempt to compensate for these stressors by altering the production of neurotransmitters and hormones, which makes the body more difficult to regulate. Similar to anxiety, chronic stress can cause changes in brain chemistry, physical health and the ability to cope with life’s struggles.

What are the negative impacts of chronic stress and anxiety on the body?

  • Disrupted hormone function
  • Increased stress on organs
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Memory and concentration issues
  • Increased likelihood to develop mental health disorders
  • Insomnia

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues in the U.S. with an estimated 40 million adults dealing with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to an article by Gabrielle Moss. In a 2017 survey conducted by the America Psychological Association, the top two causes of stress are politics and money. A third stressor for Americans is work.

How to manage stress and/or anxiety

  • Deep breathing exercises: Structured breathing exercises or simply focusing on your breath while breathing fully helps your body go from the fight-or-flight response to your relaxation response.
  • Regular exercise: Helps release important brain chemicals, enhances the immune system and increases your body temperature protecting you from the effects of stress and anxiety.
  • Turn towards the positive: Every night, take a piece of paper and draw two columns. List the troubling things in one column and favorable things in the other. Make at least one favorable entry for each troubling one!
  • Practice mindfulness meditation: Train your brain to focus on the present instead of anxieties about the future or regret about the past. Try meditating for 15 minutes every day. Every practice will get easier.
  • Do a “digital detox”: Disconnect from technology by putting your phone away for short periods; take a break from social media and email.

No matter what you are struggling with, you never have to deal with it alone. Talking to others provides us with meaningful social support and forces our concerns out making them easier to understand and work through.

We Can Help

Anxiety is a treatable condition; VITAL WorkLife EAP members have access to in the moment phone support, counseling and more. Access these resources through your VITAL WorkLife App or by calling 800.383.1908. If you’re having thoughts of harming yourself or others, please seek immediate medical attention or call/text 9-8-8. 

Not a Member? 

If you are interested in learning more about our EAP and how we can help support well-being in your organization, contact us online.



Kicking Your Stress Habits: A Do It Yourself Guide for Coping. Donald Tubesing.

Moss, Gabrielle. “4 Ways to Tell the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety.”, Jan. 2016.

Alnuweiri, Tamim. “Stress and Anxiety101: What’s the Difference Between the Two Mental-Health Issues?”, March 2018.

Calm Clinic Editorial Team, November 27, 2017.

Healthline Editorial Team, May 25, 2017.

Holmes, Lindsay. “The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety”. Huffington Post, Dec. 2017. /stress/fact-sheet-on-stress.shtml


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