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16 Signs You Have Anxiety – Not 'Just' Stress

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The words “stress” and “anxiety” are often used interchangeably. On the surface, this makes sense. Stress can make you feel anxiety after all, and symptoms of the two tend to overlap: the racing thoughts, the pumping heart, the rising panic.

But when you tell someone you struggle with anxiety, it’s frustrating when they respond with, “Yeah, I’ve been stressed too.” Because while stress can cause anxiety — not all anxiety is caused by stress. That’s an important distinction. Unlike stress, anxiety doesn’t always have a specific cause. (Or at least, in my experience, the cause isn’t always “logical.”) Unlike stress, anxiety doesn’t simply go away when you’re not in a stressful situation. While I’m not stressed on a “relaxing” Saturday, for example, I sure can get anxious.

To understand the difference between stress and anxiety, we asked our community to share their experiences with both. While of course, stress is serious, and can really affect someone’s health, anxiety needs to be taken just as seriously. Even when we don’t “get” the cause, we need to have just as much compassion. We hope you can share this piece with someone who doesn’t understand.

Here’s what our community shared with us:

  1. “Anxiety doesn’t go away when the source of stress goes away. When I’m stressed, I feel better once the situation is dealt with. But when it’s anxiety, nothing can make me feel better. Even removing myself from the situation doesn’t help. I just have to let myself feel it.” — Nikki G.
  2. When I’m stressed, I acknowledge it and normally know what’s causing it. But when I’m anxious, I can’t think and I get a sick feeling like I’m about to jump into a pool having no knowledge of how to swim and no life preserver in sight. My mind flicks from dark place to dark place and I can’t block it out like I can block out stress. Stress feels like an emotional headache. Anxiety feels like I’m about to jump off the edge of a cliff and drown with no one to catch me at the bottom.” — Maxine B.
  3. “When I’m anxious, I start to dissociate. I have a hard time concentrating on anything and I start to feel like I’m having an out of body experience. If I’m just stressed I will feel things like shaky, hot, heart pounding, etc. but when I’m super anxious, it’s hard for me to connect with my body at all.” — Rachel Be.
  4. “I can logic away stress, meaning I can think to myself, ‘What am I feeling?’ ‘Why am I feeling this?’ ‘Am I overreacting?’ ‘How do I fix this?’ and pull myself out of it. Anxiety doesn’t let me do this, it stops me dead in my tracks and pulls me out of my own head in a way that makes it impossible to follow these four questions. There’s also the physical side of things, I literally feel like there’s a huge weight on my chest, my brain goes fuzzy and all my muscles tighten up with no way to really relax them. If it gets really bad, I disconnect, I feel like I’m watching myself do things… my body feels like a puppet and I stop feeling everything until the anxiety is gone… which can take anywhere from a few hours to a week.” — Joleen Q. 
  5. “Stress I can usually relieve by closing my eyes and taking 10 deep breaths. Though when my anxiety is triggered, I begin to feel a tightness within my chest, as if instead of my heart pumping naturally, it feels like someone is reaching into my chest and compressing too much and releasing, but not releasing all the way. Even through breathing exercises, it will continue leaving me to ride it out. Eventually it ceases, but that is how I am able to determine the difference between experiencing stress or anxiety.” — Ricky R.
  6. “Anxiety is a bubbling feeling of the thoughts in my head that won’t stop. A bubbling feeling so intense I can feel it in my heart beat, I can hear it in my ears, feel it in the shake of my hands and the sudden foreign feeling of being in my own skin. Stress is when I am fully aware of the cause, and can acknowledge that I am not responsible for the cause.” — Annabella R.
  7. “When I am just stressed and the stressor is addressed and taken care of, I don’t feel scared or agitated anymore. When I am anxious, I attack the skin around my fingers, picking at them and chewing them. I bite and chew the inside if my lips and cheeks. I can become severely agitated and aggressive with others with my words. I just can’t think and feel like I am drowning. Everything spins.” — Moon N.
  8. “Simply put? Anxiety — I obsess over it, and my fight or flight response is too strong to move on from the thought. Stress — I can easily distract myself from it to calm down out of the stress.” — Reba E.
  9. “Stress feels different. It’s a constant even pressure which eases off after the stressful thing has past. Anxiety can escalate, undulate and exacerbate panic. I can always tell the difference. The symptoms feel so different. Stress I can manage, but anxiety manages me.” — Antonia B.
  10. “My stress comes out in the form of irritability and anger, but once the situation has passed I feel relief. Now anxiety for me is feeling very nervous, also irritable, not being able to be still, can’t relax and I feel like I’m just waiting for something bad to happen.” — Elizabeth L. 
  11. “Anxiety = feel out of control and becomes too hard to keep managed. Usually I need to peak in order for it to pass. Stressed = feel I am able to change my thoughts behind the stress and using tactics usually help ease it somewhat.” — Johanna M. 
  12. “When my anxiety flares up, I feel like I’m ‘past the point of no return’ and it feels like there’s no way out. When I’m stressed it feels like I can relieve it somehow, because it doesn’t just flare up.” — Guthrie E.
  13. “Stressed is something you can feel building up before you snap. Anxiety is like driving and all is fine, then hitting a brick wall going 70 m.p.h.” — Jessica B.
  14. “I can work and function through stress. Anxiety…. I freeze up and stop being able to make sense of even the simplest of tasks.” — Dizzy P.
  15. “For me, stress can usually be resolved by completing a task. Anxiety is more often an irrational fear and is usually about something I can’t control.” — Shelby G.
  16. “Stress ebbs and flows, anxiety is constant.” — Katie F.

What would you add?

Originally published: August 16, 2018
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