These are the major differences between anxiety and stress, according to an expert

Caitlin Flynn
These are the major differences between anxiety and stress, according to an expert

As someone who’s dealt with anxiety disorder for as long as I can remember, my “natural” state tends to be consumed with irrational fear, worrying that’s incredibly difficult to control, and (on my worst days) paranoia. I’m keenly aware that these fears are irrational, but that doesn’t stop my anxiety from convincing me that a friend is mad at me simply because they take longer than usual to respond to a text message, or that I should give up on my writing career because I received several consecutive rejections.

Everyone gets stressed out and it’s an undeniably terrible feeling. But it’s importance to know the differences between anxiety and stress, because if you’re suffering from anxiety disorder you should get the help you need and deserve, while stress is something that can be managed with the right kind of efforts.

As we’re wrapping up April, which is Stress Awareness Month, we chatted with experienced psychotherapist and author of You 1 Anxiety 0, Jodi Aman, who tells us that the level of adrenaline released is key to discerning the difference between stress and full-fledged anxiety:

“Stress, anxiety, fear, worries, discomfort and confusion all bring about the same hormone release: adrenaline,” Aman says. “However, you can release a lot of adrenaline or a little.”

“This level and how you think about what is happening makes all the difference whether the sensation is handleable or if it interrupts your life,” Aman continues.

Aman adds that each person “has his or her own threshold for when it crosses over to be a problem.” You have to get to know yourself and figure out when that stress crosses into something that more closely resembles anxiety.

Here’s are three ways to know if your stress has actually turned into anxiety.

1. Your decision making process is negatively affected

Aman says one of the major signs that your stress has veered into the territory of anxiety disorder is difficulty making decisions. Neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh have found that a specific neuronal mechanism contributes to how anxiety sufferers make decisions. The cognitive process of decision-making hinges on weighing the risks, rewards, and consequences of an action.


In order to make a decision in a normal and healthy way, specific neurons within subregions of the brain’s prefrontal cortex must function properly. Anxiety disrupts this area of the brain, and it can result in either poor decisions, or the inability to make a decision at all. If this sounds familiar, speak to a trusted professional to see if you have been living with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder.

2. You no longer want to engage in activities you otherwise enjoy

When my anxiety is at its peak, I often find myself canceling plans that I was initially super excited about. Aman says this is a hallmark trait that differentiates the disorder from stress: “[Anxiety] stops you from doing things you would ordinarily enjoy,” she tells HG. This is due to the vicious cycle of uncontrollable worrying and irrational fears—when we overthink everything and make a mental list of all the things that could go wrong, the fun activity no longer seems worth it. This is much less likely to happen if you are simply living with stress.

After all that overthinking, it feels safer to stay in the safety of your apartment or home. Of course, this creates a vicious cycle. By avoiding the situations, we inadvertently intensify our own anxiety and it makes it increasingly more difficult to push ourselves out of our comfort zones. We need to push ourselves, but this is easier said than done, so Aman recommends seeking professional help right away.

3. You start experiencing persistent physical side effects

Pretty much everyone has experienced the physical side effects of stress, whether it’s at a job interview, a tense family gathering, or a major presentation at work. Racing heart, sweaty palms, trouble sitting still—you know the drill. But, for people with anxiety disorder, the physical symptoms are intense and they’re a constant companion.

These symptoms don’t simply arise during situations that pretty much everyone would describe as stressful—they’re par for the course. Not everyone with anxiety experiences every possible symptom, but common physical side effects are dry mouth, dizziness, chest pain, heart palpitations, insomnia, trouble concentrating, and depersonalization (a sense of feeling “unreal” and not in control of your actions).

If any of these signs sound painfully familiar, take Aman’s advice and seek professional help. Although anxiety disorders aren’t curable, they’re absolutely treatable through therapy, the development of healthy coping techniques, and (in some cases) medication. Even if you’re not suffering from anxiety, though, make sure you keep your stress at bay. Because overloading yourself with all that adrenaline isn’t doing you any good in the long run.