Is It Stress, Fear, or Anxiety? How to Know the Difference

WebMD Blog:

Is It Stress, Fear, or Anxiety? How to Know the Difference

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Photo: PickPik


With all that’s happening in the world, most of us are feeling stressed, anxious, or afraid – or some combination of them. Though many people use these words interchangeably, they are not the same. Knowing the difference can help you cope better.

Stress. Just as lifting a heavy weight stresses your muscles, external factors can stress your psyche. On the positive side, you might feel stressed by preparing for your wedding. On the not-so-positive side, many people are currently stressed by political friction, restrictions due to the pandemic, and racial tensions directly in the news.

Anxiety. By contrast, anxiety is the result of internal tensions. It is a feeling of worry or dread that is not a direct reaction to a specific external cause. You might fear what the future will bring or have a general sense of worry. Because neither of these situations present a real, current danger, your reactions are examples of anxiety. For instance, you might be anxious about having COVID-19 (and maybe even dying from it!) despite knowing that your sniffly nose is likely due to the allergies you’ve suffered through your whole life. When you chronically or periodically experience anxiety that is greatly out of proportion to current situations, you may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (which can be treated with therapy and/or medicine).

Fear. When an external factor is a threat to your safety – let’s say coming face-to-face with a hungry lion – the feeling you have is fear. In today’s world, you are likely to feel fear in response to the threat of contracting COVID-19.

All three feelings overlap and are physiologically similar. For instance, you may feel tension in your body, your heart racing, high blood pressure, or insomnia. With stress or fear, your symptoms will likely pass when the threat disappears – or soon afterward. Anxiety, however, can last longer because it is not directly linked to external causes (and when we feel afraid of our anxious response, we can unintentionally make our anxiety last longer).

Because stress, fear, and anxiety are all associated with tension in the body, you can often reduce them by learning to relax. You might find it helpful to learn and practice breathing exercises, do yoga, jog, or take a warm bath. Also, if you are short on sleep, it can be extremely helpful to get some rest.

With stress and fear, it can help to reduce exposure to what’s causing them. For example, reducing your stress and fear might mean limiting your exposure to the news. When you’re limited in your ability to address the things making you stressed or afraid, you might need to learn to do what you can to ease the problem and then focus on other things in life.

Reducing anxiety requires that you change how you think. If you feel swept away by fears of an impending Armageddon, you will benefit from returning your attention to the present. This might include simply noticing that you are consumed by fearful thoughts of the future and then choosing to instead focus on what is happening in the moment. If that in-the-moment experience causes your fear, you can address it as explained above.

When your anxiety, stress, or fear feel overwhelming, acknowledge the emotions. Do what you can to comfort yourself, or find a supportive person to offer comfort. Then it can be helpful to intellectually take a step back. While acknowledging your very real emotions, try viewing the situation from a more objective perspective. That might provide you with insight about what to do next. By effectively addressing your emotions, you can help ease your tension, feel lighter, and enjoy a greater sense of well-being, even in light of the daily news in our upside-down world.


© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


Important:  This article is part of the WebMD Relationships blog. The articles in the WebMD Relationships blog are for general education purposes only. They should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read in this article.