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How Can I Tell If It Is Stress Or Anxiety?

Updated on June 6, 2018
denise.w.anderson profile image

Denise has struggled with mental illness most of her life. She also has family members with mental illness. She speaks from experience.

Both stress and anxiety stem from what has happened in our past. Until we are able to deal with these issues, they will continue to cause us problems in our present.
Both stress and anxiety stem from what has happened in our past. Until we are able to deal with these issues, they will continue to cause us problems in our present.

Are you having physical symptoms that could be from stress or anxiety?

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"I don't feel well. I ache all over. My head hurts. My stomach won't settle down. I would just stay in bed, but it doesn't seem to help."

When we are feeling this way, perhaps our body is alerting us that something is amiss. Could we be having issues with stress or anxiety?

Stress is the way our body responds to change, whether it is in our physical environment, or things that affect us emotionally. Anxiety, on the other hand, comes from the fear of what we think might happen in the future. When looking at these definitions, it appears that they are two very different issues, however, the physical manifestations of them are very similar.

The table below shows physical manifestations of both stress and anxiety. Notice that all of the body symptoms are found in both. How can we tell the difference between the two? Is it even necessary to do so? The following paragraphs help us to understand more.

Body Symptom
Stress
Anxiety
Rapid heart beat
X
X
Increased respiration
X
X
Muscle tension
X
X
Digestive disturbance
X
X

Is it really necessary to tell the difference?

Since both stress and anxiety manifest themselves in similar ways, it is hard to tell just which one we are dealing with. The problem is, when we are stressed, we tend to be overly anxious. The converse is also true. When we are anxious, we are easily over stressed.

In order to find the root cause, we can ask ourselves the following questions (from The Emotional Survival Handbook):

  1. What is happening?
  2. How am I feeling?
  3. What am I thinking about doing?
  4. What will happen if I do it?
  5. Is that really what I want?
  6. Is there something that would be better instead?
  7. What would be best for me and others in the long run?

According to The Emotional Survival Handbook, both stress and anxiety have their roots in what has happened in our past. We process our present circumstances through our past experience. When we see something that we have experienced before, we default to a previous response. If what we experienced was negative, our current automatic emotion will be similar.

Chronic stress builds up over time, and weakens our immune system. Our bodies spend so much time fighting the stress, that we loose our strength and ability to ward off disease. Doctors are quick to note that the majority of the illnesses they treat are due to the cumulative affects of stress.

Anxiety can be the result of cumulative stress. It can also stem from our "fight or flight" response being triggered frequently from unrealistic fears that are emotionally based rather than reality based. Both require similar intervention to deal with the physical symptoms.

When stress levels rise, when distress appears, when tragedy strikes, too often we attempt to keep up the same frantic pace or even accelerate, thinking somehow that the more rushed our pace, the better off we will be.

— Dieter F. Uchtdorf

Five steps to make the physical symptoms subside

In order to make the physical symptoms subside, we take the following action:

  1. Pause and be still - stress and anxiety both require us to stop what we are doing and focus on what is happening to our body.
  2. Breathe deeply - once we are calm and still, inhale slowly, then exhale slowly. It may help to close the eyes and count slowly while we breathe in and out. This simple action slows down the heart, helps the muscles relax, and keeps us from responding in a rushed way.
  3. Move slowly - in order to remain calm and relaxed, we move slowly. No matter what is happening around us, our slow movement will keep us from getting caught up on a frenzy that will destroy the peace that we have just gained.
  4. Think before responding - while we are moving slowly, we are allowing our brain time to think ahead at what is happening before we respond. Too often, we respond before we think, and regret our actions later. It is much better to think first, and then respond.
  5. Smile - a simple smile will keep us relaxed. We cannot be uptight and smile. It just does not work! Smiling relaxes the entire body.

Breathing deeply slows down the heart and respiration, decreasing stress and anxiety.
Breathing deeply slows down the heart and respiration, decreasing stress and anxiety.

Its all in the gut

Once we are relaxed, we can notice where the source of our distress is coming from. The heart slows down, the muscles stop screaming, and the head throbbing decreases. Now, we can really listen to our body and hear what it is saying.

The key to telling whether stress or anxiety is the core issue lies in our digestive system. Both cause digestive issues, however, stress tends to slow down the digestive system. The body feels overwhelmed with the change that is happening. The appetite diminishes and the stomach feels overly full, like there is a lead weight in the pit of the stomach.

Anxiety, on the other hand, speeds up digestion. Stomach acid is secreted at an alarming rate, and food moves through the system much too quickly. Rather than there being a lead weight in the stomach, there are rumbling and gnawing sensations, perhaps even burping and acid re-flux.

If both sensations are present, most likely both stress and anxiety are present at the same time. As each issue is dealt with, however, its related symptoms will fade away, and we can determine which one is causing us the most distress. It will be the one left in the end, and we can pinpoint the causal factor.

There are so many things to be endured: illness, injustice, insensitivity, poverty, aloneness, unresponsiveness, being misrepresented and misunderstood, and, sometimes, even enemies.

— Neal L. Maxwell

Not every issue can be resolved

Unfortunately, not every issue in our lives can be resolved. There are some things we simply must learn to endure, or live with, as long as we live. If the stress and anxiety that we experience has these types of roots, knowing and doing more are not really an option.

Rather, it is necessary for us to develop a refined sense of character with the assistance of the only being in the universe that can help us, and that is God. When we look up to God, we are able to see beyond the present moment, and find ways to cope that we had not previously considered.

The saying, "Let go and let God" helps us to remember that if we let go of trying to control the outcome of a situation that is beyond us, we allow God to help us look at it differently, think of things that we can do rather than things that we can't, and give us peace and comfort that can come from no other source.

We will all face situations in our lives when our only option is to look to God. We develop the characteristic of humility, are able to forgive, and find peace of mind. Turning away from God leads to anger, revenge, and eventually, bitterness. The diagram below shows us this:

When we turn to God, we are able to humble ourselves, forgive and have peace. Giving in to our anger turns us away from God and eventually to bitterness.
When we turn to God, we are able to humble ourselves, forgive and have peace. Giving in to our anger turns us away from God and eventually to bitterness. | Source

Life is full of all types of experiences, and we are sure to have stress and anxiety at some time or another, no matter who we are or what our education or beliefs. Time is on our side, however, and we can pause and take those steps to reduce our distress, or we can plunge ourselves headlong into ill health and unhappiness.

© 2016 Denise W Anderson

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    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      24 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Chitrangada! Many people do experience both simultaneously. That is what makes it so difficult to tell the difference between the two. Our ability to manage them is dependent upon us learning what our triggers are so that we can keep it from getting out of hand. Once we start experiencing the physical symptoms. We are already in the danger zone. I appreciate you sharing your experience!

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      24 months ago from New Delhi, India

      Excellent hub and you brought out the difference between stress and anxiety so clearly.

      I believe I experience both simultaneously. But I have learnt to manage them to a great extent.

      I liked your last paragraph the most--Not every issue can be resolved.The sooner we realise this the easier it becomes to manage both stress and anxiety.

      Thanks for sharing this wonderful hub!

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I think most of us need a certain amount of it, Linda. My husband used to say that if I didn't have stress in my life, I would create it! It seems that once we learn how best to deal with it, we function better when it is present. It becomes our "normal" mode of operations. I appreciate you sharing your experiences.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      2 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Yep, I could relate to this article! Stress and anxiety have been a way of life for me for years, I actually function best when under the influence of either. I'm weird in that way. And in other ways. :)

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Audrey! It is great to rub shoulders with others having similar beliefs!

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      2 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Denise

      I'm a member of the church and so happy to meet a fellow member! Thanks for the link. I will use it right away!

      Audrey

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      It is good to know that you have read "The Ensign" Audrey. The quotes that I use are specifically from the General Conference talks given by these men. They are leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and every six months (April and October), they gather for General Conference and give talks of general interest to church members. These speeches are found online at lds.org under General Conference. I appreciate you sharing!

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Dianna. Anxiety is one of the most misunderstood conditions. When we can better understand what people with anxiety go through, we can help them to better deal its many facets. I'm glad that you found this article helpful. I appreciate your comments!

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      2 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      Hi Denise. Thank you for addressing this subject. Helpful and informative and I will share. The quote by Dieter F. Uchtdorf as well as Neal Maxwell touched me so. I have most of Maxwells books and read articles each month by Uchutdorf in a magazine called "The Ensign."

      Audrey

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      2 years ago

      Another helpful article, Denise. A few people I know deal with occasional anxiety and this will help me understand them better.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Dr. Pran. I appreciate your comments.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I think that is what we all do, Beata. We respond the best that we know how. If there is not someone or something to remind us that there is a better way, we tend to default to what we have done in the past. I hope that I have given you some tools that you can use to make things better! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • Dr Pran Rangan profile image

      Dr Pran Rangan 

      2 years ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Very nice hub. You have very nicely differentiated between stress and anxiety.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 

      2 years ago from Western Australia

      thank you I enjoyed your hub:) Haven't been here for some time, I have just dealing with something from my past and responded my own creative way on it:)...B

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Bronwen. I appreciate your feedback!

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      2 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      A very interesting and helpful article - it's set out so clearly, too.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      You are right, Heidi, it is difficult to differentiate. The more we grow in our understanding of both stress and anxiety, the better we get at teasing apart the underlying issues. Thanks for your comments!

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      You are welcome, Dora! It is difficult to make a change after going through an intense period in our lives. We aren't sure what to do with ourselves when we don't have that lifestyle any more. It takes time to slow down, regroup, and reassess our priorities. I am glad that you found this information helpful. I appreciate you sharing your experiences!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      2 years ago from Chicago Area

      It is difficult to differentiate! Thanks for the insightful look at the issue.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      2 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks, Denise. You answered some questions which I didn't know whom to ask. When my mother died, I was afraid to halt. The quote from Dieter F. Uchtdorf describes me. I agree with the steps you outlined toward that physical rest as well as peace of mind. Thanks also for explaining the difference between stress and anxiety. Helpful as always!

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      That is interesting, Bill, that you would like to give her a part of you so that you can help her! I think that the best thing we can do when our spouse is stressed is to love them and give them our support. We cannot fix the problem for them, and when we try, we run the risk of them thinking that we don't love and accept them. It is much better to simply let them know that we are here for them and that we love them. That takes some of the pressure of the stress off, and gives them room to make changes if they so desire. Thanks for sharing your insights! I'm glad that my articles are helpful to you.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I am glad that you enjoyed the article, Mike. Thanks for your comments.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Dil. I appreciate you stopping by and commenting.

    • denise.w.anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise W Anderson 

      2 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Glenn. I think that a lot of people who have a high threshold for pain don't realize when they are stressed or anxious. I know that my husband is that way. When we start to talk about what is happening, however, he recognizes some of the signs. Being able to talk about it helps. You might say that differentiating between stress and anxiety is a higher level thinking process that we don't usually get to unless we are living on a higher emotional plane. We are able to recognize and deal with our emotions more readily at this level. It is like differentiating between anger and frustration. Unless you are more cognizant of your thinking processes and where the emotions are coming from, there really is no difference. I appreciate your insights.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Bev needs to find a way to get stress under control for her. I don't now how to help her with it. I never experience it, but how do I translate me to her? Anyway, your articles help, Denise, so thank you.

    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 

      2 years ago

      This makes a lot of sense. Enjoyed reading it.

    • My Cook Book profile image

      Dil Vil 

      2 years ago from India

      Good hub with great focus on the issue.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      This is a very well written and organized article Denise. I didn't realize there is a difference between stress and anxiety.

      I seem to have a high threshold of pain since it takes a lot to get me to the point of feeling stressed. However, I didn't realize that I sometimes do get anxious about things. You explained that clearly and I recognized a few symptoms, such as the stomach rumbling. The next time that happens I'm going to try the relaxation exercises that you mentioned.

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