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Stress or Anxiety -- What's the Difference? | MyLifeStages
What's the difference between feeling stressed vs. having an anxiety disorder? And when should a person seek help?This was a great question we received recently on Ask the Expert, and one that many of us may ask.
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Pinterest Pin ItStress or Anxiety -- What's the Difference?

Stress or Anxiety -- What's the Difference?

Posted on 05/20/2013  by  Healthy Living Blog 

Stressful to do list on iphoneWhat's the difference between feeling stressed vs. having an anxiety disorder? And when should a person seek help?

This was a great question we received recently on Ask the Expert, and one that many of us may ask.  

Any busy person knows how it feels to wake in the middle of the night, anxious over the to-do list roaring through her brain. Modern life is hectic and the race to keep up can be unmercifiul. But when does the constant feeling of being stressed actually signal an anxiety disorder?

We turned to LCSW Renee Burgard of Sutter Health's Palo Alto Medical Foundationfor some perspective. Here's what Renee had to say:


What is feeling stressed?
Feeling stressed is a normal part of daily life and as “eustress,” or good stress, it can help us to achieve difficult goals, to stretch our limits in beneficial ways. What causes bad stress for one person might be thrilling for another – think of a roller coaster ride, or skydiving.

When negative stress, or “distress” is intense or multi-faceted, especially if it is prolonged, it can make us sick. More than 70 percent of doctor visits are said to be attributable to the effects of negative stress. Emotional and psychological effects can include:

  • irritability
  • frustration
  • anger
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • loss of appetite
  • overeating
  • poor concentration and memory.

Physical symptoms can include:

  • fatigue
  • GI and skin problems
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • muscle ache
  • rapid heart rate
  • increased blood pressure
  • and cold or sweaty palms.

If you are experiencing stress that is unrelenting or extreme – with symptoms that are severe, worsen, or persist – it is important to meet with your primary care physician, and it can help to seek out a therapist specializing in stress reduction. There are also excellent stress management courses – in particular, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes, which have been proven to be very effective in reducing the negative effects of stress. (You can find upcoming Northern California MBSR classes offered through Sutter Health here.)

What is an anxiety disorder?
Stress can cause anxiety; and anxiety can cause many of the same effects that come with stress. Feeling anxious is also a natural part of life for many of us, but for some people it can be intense and/or pervasive and unrelenting. Anxiety can also be a symptom of a medical condition – it is important to discuss symptoms with your doctor, to rule out any possible medical causes.

Anxiety disorders interfere with the ability to function well in daily life. There are many kinds of anxiety disorders, including:

  • generalized anxiety
  • panic
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • social anxiety
  • post-traumatic stress
  • and phobias.

All of these exist on their own continuum, from mild to extreme, depending on a variety of factors. The symptoms can be episodic or continuous.

A healthy diet and regular exercise are essential to the management of anxiety disorders. It is essential to speak to your doctor about what you’re experiencing, and to receive professional help from a therapist. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based therapies have been proven to be especially helpful. Your primary care doctor and/or a psychiatrist can prescribe medications that can help immediately and for the long term, if needed. Medication is not always necessary, but it can be very helpful for getting symptoms under control, and for making it more possible to make the best use of therapy.

****************************************Renee Burgard, LCSW

Thanks, Renee! Read on for more Q&A with Renee or to ask a question of your own:

How can I find joy in my life again?

Job Burnout: How to deal with workplace stress?

Reducing insomnia from internal stress

Submit a question of your own


radiohudson wrote on 06/27/2013

This is such good information. I'm planning to share it with my wife as my teen daughter is struggling with some of these issues.