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Stress and Anxiety: Understanding Their Differences, Similarities, and Origins

Anxiety and stress are normal human responses that have allowed us to evolve and survive since the dawn of humanity. Stress allows us to react to immediate threats, and anxiety encourages us to plan for threats that may await us in the future. These survival and preparation techniques become problematic when triggered by everyday experiences that pose little to no threat to our survival. They can develop into a cycle of worrying about events that are highly unlikely to occur. In this sense, they harm our well-being, relationships, social life, and work.

While completely escaping stress and anxiety isn’t an option or ideal, that doesn't mean we have to let these feelings control us or be a part of everyday life. In many cases, we have control over their presence and impact.

Stress vs. Anxiety:

The source of stress is often external and is a physiological response to a stimulus. That stimulus could be derived from our senses, like the smell of smoke, the sight of someone with a weapon, etc., or an emotional stimulus like fear. Anytime our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) engages, we experience stress. This is also known as our fight, flight, or freeze response.

On the other hand, anxiety is an internal emotional response that does not require an external stimulus. We may jump to conclusions by processing the worst-case scenario and negative “what ifs'' when we have no evidence to back up our prediction. We may worry about and visualize getting into an accident, doing poorly on a presentation, or not being accepted by our peers. Anxiety is the product of an overly active imagination that sees the worst in everything. These negative thoughts are the stimulus that activates our stress response.

With stress, I may hear clients say, “I have a lot going on right now. I’m very overwhelmed,” but with anxiety, they might say, “I have a lot going on right now. I have many thoughts running in my mind that anticipate the worst-case scenario.”

Symptoms you may experience with stress:


  • Muscle tension or physical discomfort

  • Jaw clenching

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Restlessness

  • Increased heart rate

  • Nausea, upset stomach

  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath

  • Sweating

  • Uncontrollable shaking

  • Temporary paralysis due to extreme fear


  • Fear

  • Terror

  • Overwhelm

  • Helplessness

  • Shock

  • Anger


  • Aggression (reaction to defend and protect)

  • Racing thoughts

  • Forgetfulness

  • Difficulty making decisions and problem-solving

  • Insomnia or disrupted sleep

  • Changes in appetite or weight

  • Using food, drugs, sex, or alcohol to cope

  • Displacement of emotions onto others

Symptoms Of Anxiety:


  • Stress


  • Fixating on the worst scenario or reliving past experiences

  • Constant worry

  • Racing thoughts

  • Overthinking

  • Doom and gloom mindset

  • Feelings of helplessness

  • Fear and panic

Behavioral: All symptoms related to stress, in addition to:

  • Inability to complete normal daily functions

  • Avoidance of people and activities that cause distress

  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors

  • An effort to control everything within your environment (including people)

Please note: The above are some potential symptoms you may experience when experiencing stress and anxiety. You may not experience all of them and may experience symptoms that are not listed.

To reduce our anxiety and stress, we must become consciously aware of and able to redirect any troubling thought patterns activating our SNS because they will determine how we feel and can lead to internal chaos.

Feeling anxious can prevent you from moving forward on your goals. You may find yourself turning down opportunities, avoiding attending social gatherings, or engaging in things you once enjoyed.

Practicing emotional intelligence can help you develop awareness around and overcome the irrational fears or ingrained beliefs that are likely causing your anxiety and triggering your stress response.

Being able to gain clarity on your purpose and values in life and working with an emotional wellness coach, like myself, to help you learn coping tools that relieve anxiety, reduce stress, and release self-doubt, may be an ideal next step to help you live a more fulfilling life. I host emotional wellness retreats and created an emotional wellness program, Thrive in EQ, to share tools and strategies to help with anxiety and stress management.

Check out my bio to connect and learn more.


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