Know the Differences Between Stress and Anxiety


By Melinda Johnson, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

“I’m really anxious.” 

“My anxiety is so high.” 

“I can’t do that; my anxiety is getting worse.”

As a Youth First Social Worker working with junior high and high school students throughout the school year, I often hear these statements. Students visit me struggling with an emotional response they identify as anxiety.

Are they wrong? Not necessarily. Anxiety is a common emotion that we all experience because life is stressful. Stress and anxiety are terms used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two. 

So, what is the difference? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is defined as the physical or mental response to an external cause. Stress could include an upcoming school or work project, having an unexpected illness, or experiencing conflict with a family member or friend. It’s a more focused response to a clearly identified event.

Anxiety is our body’s response to stress. The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as the persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. Individuals with anxiety disorders usually have unwanted thoughts or concerns of future events and experience long-term symptoms. Anxiety can cause people to seek avoidance, while stress can often motivate people to reach goals or solve the problem.

Stress and anxiety can manifest in similar ways. Both can cause disruption of sleep, increased worry, or feelings of unease or tension. Like anxiety, stress can make an individual feel more irritable, cause a change in appetite and difficulty concentrating. Though, whether it’s acute stress or chronic anxiety, it’s important you’re aware of the symptoms and address them appropriately. 

There are many ways to manage stress and anxiety-related symptoms. Practicing sleep hygiene is one of the best ways to combat unwanted worries. Talk to your friends, family, or trusted supporters. Engage in healthy coping skills, whether it is spending time outside, journaling, exercising, or including meditation in your routine. Prioritize time getting organized and addressing the things you can control.

If you’re a parent with a worried child, help your child identify the difference between what they can problem solve and what they may need help with. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by stressors, which can cause an increase in anxiety-related symptoms or a decrease in daily functioning. 

Remember, not all distress symptoms equal a mental health disorder. However, if symptoms persist, you have a change in your level of functioning or a major life disruption due to symptoms, it is important to follow up with your primary care provider to discuss what treatment options may be best for you.