Is It Stress or Anxiety? Here's How to Find Out

You have a difficult algebra test tomorrow. You’re trying to study but, ironically, you can’t focus because all you can think about is how you’re going to do on the test. You have butterflies in your stomach, you don’t feel like eating, your body is warm and your heart is beating faster. But is this stress, or anxiety? How can you tell the difference? More importantly, can you deal with both? We talked to Kristen Scarlett, LMHC, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, to find out.


So Is It Stress, Or Anxiety?

“A simplified way to think about this is that stress is a reaction to a situation, while anxiety is the reaction to the stress. For instance, you may experience a stress reaction to an upcoming test, that includes butterflies in your stomach, the loss of appetite, rapid heartbeat, feeling hot. The symptoms of anxiety may be similar, but they are your reactions to your thoughts, not the actual situation.”

A good indicator of whether you’re feeling stress or anxiety, is whether you’re experiencing “catastrophizing thoughts”. This is when you convince yourself that the negative outcome of something will be much worse than it actually is. For example, you might be worried that you won’t do well on your test, but a catastrophizing thought would be “If I don’t do well on this test then I’ll never succeed in life.”

These thoughts trigger physical reactions including rapid heartbeat, sweating, shallow breath or dizziness. So it’s not the test that’s triggering the anxiety, it’s the internal trigger- your own thoughts, Kristen explains.

“It is very normal to feel stressed about a test, a date, or having to take classes virtually instead of in school like you’re used to.” If you are feeling very anxious about a situation, it will help to first identify the thoughts that are triggering the anxiety.


But How Do You Turn Those Thoughts Around?

As anxiety is directly related to our thoughts, managing anxiety begins with addressing the root of the problem. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a tool favored by Kristen and many mental health professionals, helps us learn how to identify and transform our negative thoughts (the ones that cause anxiety!) into positive ones. “This therapy is proven to decrease the symptoms of various mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, insomnia, eating disorders, and panic attacks.” The general idea is to identify the harmful thought, then transform it into a more realistic, positive and healthier version of the thought.



For Example:

We want to turn this thought:

“If I don’t do well on this test then I’ll never succeed in life”

Into a healthier version of that thought, like this:

“If I don’t do well on this test, I’ll be disappointed, but I can study harder and improve next time.”

As you continue to practice making these small changes to individual thoughts, you will eventually work towards changing more general thought patterns. “Making these changes to your thought patterns and behaviors will greatly improve your mood and decrease the symptoms of the anxiety your were experiencing”, according to Kristen.



Kristen’s Tips For Managing and Preventing Anxiety And Stress:

Kristen recommends four practices we can implement into our daily lives to manage (and prevent!) anxiety:


Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle

“Exercising regularly, keeping a regular sleep schedule, eating consistently and healthily all help keep anxiety in check. Being consistent can also help prevent symptoms of anxiety from increasing and triggering an anxiety attack at times.”


Breathing Exercises

If you feel your anxiety growing, try a few simple breathing exercises. “Breathing slow and consistently signals our body’s nervous system to calm the body down. Long, deep breaths can also calm our physical responses to stress like rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing” which can then release our anxiety, fear and racing thoughts. A few of Kristen’s favorite breathing exercises include:


4-7-8 Breathing

Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 8 counts, breathe out for 7 counts, repeat.


Box Breathing

Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts.

Breathe out for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, repeat.


Belly Breathing

“Place your hand on your belly and inhale deeply so all the air goes to your belly- you will feel your belly rise and fill with air, upon exhale your belly should feel like it’s deflating.”



Grounding Exercises

“Grounding exercises can help bring you back to the present when your anxiety start to increase. If you are focused on the present, you can’t worry about the future or past.” Try this grounding exercise:

5-4-3-2-1 Method:

  • Name 5 objects in the room
  • 4 things you can feel
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 positive thing about yourself


Daily Check-Ins

“Check in with yourself 1-3 times a day to see [how you are feeling], and write it down.” Sit down and close your eyes, and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How does my body feel physically?
  2. Am I holding any tension in my muscles?
  3. Do my shoulders or jaw feel tight?
  4. Do I have butterflies in my stomach?
  5. Am I tired or energized?
  6. Do I feel calm or loose?
  7. What thoughts am I noticing? Don’t judge them, just notice them.
  8. If I had to name an emotion to describe how I’m feeling, what would it be?

Try this exercise at the same times each day so you remember to check-in. You can try it when you wake up, a lunch, and right before you go to bed- or whatever times work best for you!


What more do you want to know about anxiety, stress, and managing both? DM us your questions


Main Image Credit: @analeovy_art

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