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How to Distinguish Stress vs Anxiety in Therapy

Understanding the difference between stress vs anxiety can be difficult, especially because they can sometimes go hand-in-hand. Some people say they have anxiety when they are actually just stressed and the other way around, as well. The reality is that stress vs anxiety involves two different definitions, and it is important to distinguish between them.

The Difference Between Stress vs Anxiety:

Stress is a completely normal biological response that the brain and the nervous system produce during a particular event or situation. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a psychological condition/diagnosis that is developed in some individuals, over time.

The main difference between stress vs anxiety is that stress is biological, and anxiety is psychological. One of the psychological signs is that anxiety there is an emotional experience where someone might be feeling fear, dread, irritability, difficultly focusing, worry, distracted, or even exhausted.

The reason that they often get confused is that anxiety can sometimes develop due to frequent or disproportionate stress and they can both cause increased cardiovascular risk, difficulty with memory, sleep problems, and a lowered immune system. Ultimately stress vs anxiety can sometimes yield similar responses but are equally difference.

Breaking Down Stress vs Anxiety Further:

Symptoms of Stress

Some of the most common symptoms of stress include:

Fast pulse

Difficulty breathing





Tense muscles



Strategies to Cope with Stress:

Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises can be a great way to relax and ground a client when they might be feeling stressed. Teaching a client how to breathe properly, notice the difference in their breath when they are calm vs when they are stressed, and how to go from one state to the next can be helpful.


Mindfulness is a buzzword in the mental health field and essentially boils down to connecting to oneself and the world around them. Mindfulness aims to help an individual be present in the moment rather than trapped in the future or stressful mindsets. Mindfulness therapy focuses on increasing a client’s awareness of their own thoughts, feelings, and actions and the impact those feelings have on their well-being.


Exercise can be a great way to reduce stress. It does not have to be an intense exercise to be helpful in improving one’s mental health. Try getting your client to consider going on daily walks around their neighborhood or doing some light exercise a few days a week to reduce their stress and boost their mood.


Writing things down can be another cathartic way to navigate and understand stress vs anxiety. Tons of therapists recommend that their clients practice journaling every day or several times a week as a way to transcribe their emotions on paper and reduce stress.

Symptoms of Anxiety:

Racing mind

Blank mind


Feeling as though things are out of your control

Difficulty focusing

What-if thinking






Feeling disconnected or out of it

Treating Clients with Anxiety Disorders:

Many of the same methods that are used to treat stress can also be helpful in treating anxiety. The following should also be considered when dealing with anxiety vs stress:


For clients that are battling stress vs anxiety, therapy might be necessary to help them understand, navigate, and treat those symptoms. Therapy is a time where you as the mental health professional can diagnose the client/patient. Some of the most common anxiety disorders include:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder: in which characteristics include persistent worry about everyday things like finances, health, or a general sense that bad things are going to happen.

Panic Disorders: characteristics include panic attacks that happen suddenly or someone who is fearful about their next panic attack.

Phobias: in which characteristics include fears about specific things like objects (bugs, animals, etc.) or situations (closed spaces, flying, etc.)

Social Anxiety Disorders: in which characteristics include being fearful or scared of social situations, the opinions of others, and fear for what they might say that could embarrass them.

Obsessive-compulsive Disorder: in which the characteristics are persistent, uncontrollable feelings/thoughts/actions/rituals.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: which characteristics are flashbacks of trauma in the form of nightmares, frightening thoughts, and more.


Someone with an anxiety disorder might benefit from regularly prescribed medication. Depending on the type of disorder, success might be achieved with the use of medications as a treatment for anxiety vs stress.

Lifestyle Changes

If certain situations, triggers, objects, or other things are prompting anxiety vs stress in a client, it might be time for them to make some changes in their life to help them avoid or overcome those triggers.

Although stress vs anxiety can sometimes be a confusing differentiation, understanding those differences is an important part of helping a client. The key takeaway for stress vs anxiety is to remember that stress is a biological response where anxiety is a psychological response. Regardless of whether it is stress vs anxiety, there is still a benefit to be had from participating in therapy. Therapists need to understand the differences to effectively diagnose and treat their clients that might be dealing with stress vs anxiety.

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