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Feeling Anxious? 5 Steps to Know If It’s Stress or Anxiety

Face it, everyone’s stressed and anxious these days. With the pandemic, job losses, distance learning, and relationship issues, it’s no wonder we’re feeling stretched to the limit…or beyond. You may be experiencing headaches, a pit in your stomach, muscle tension, and trouble sleeping. These symptoms are all associated with stress, but they’re also linked to anxiety. How can you tell if you’re just feeling the effects of stacked stresses, or if you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder?

Here’s how to put your symptoms to the test to tell the difference.


Stress is rampant. According to the American Institute of Stress, 77% of people feel the physical effects of stress, and 73% experience psychological symptoms. Approximately one-third of all Americans say they’re dealing with extreme stress (and these numbers are pre-pandemic).

Stress occurs when a person perceives excessive demands on his or her emotional or physical resources. It typically represents a response to external forces—a pressured deadline at work, a fight with your spouse, or a fender bender, for example. Once the situation has been resolved the stressful feelings subside, and you feel like you can relax again. In some cases, however, the pressure is relentless and leads to chronic stress. It reaches toxic levels when we feel things are out of control.


Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the U.S., typically affecting approximately 40 million Americans each year. Since the pandemic, however, those numbers have skyrocketed, with 31% of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety/depression, according to the CDC.

Anxiety’s origin is internal. It plays a role in how you respond to stress, but it can also be present when there are no external stressors. People with anxiety can be filled with dread, panic, or a feeling that something bad is going to happen in any situation, even ones that should be fun or joyous. Anxious people can feel nervous and uncomfortable in their own skin at the beach while on vacation, at an amusement park, or even while sitting on the couch in the comfort of their own home.

There are multiple types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder

  • Panic disorder

  • Phobias

  • Social anxiety

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)


What makes it more difficult to distinguish everyday stress from anxiety is that the two are often intertwined. Dealing with difficult life circumstances—such as a stressful election, pandemic, divorce, job change, or the death of a close family member—elevates stress hormone levels, which makes us more vulnerable to mental health issues, such as anxiety disorders, depression, and more.

In 1967, U.S. psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe studied the effects of stress on health, surveying more than 5,000 medical patients. They asked them to say whether they had any of a series of life events in the previous 2 years. Their study showed that the more events someone had the more likely they were to become physically or emotionally sick.

In addition, today’s society is waging social warfare on our brains. Negative news cycles create an us-versus-them mentality, pitting political, racial, and other groups against each other. A 2017 survey from the American Psychological Association found that 56% of adults said following the news causes them stress. And research in the British Journal of Psychology shows that just 14 minutes of negative news has been found to increase both anxious and sad moods.

Take account of the stressors in your life to see if they’re stacking up and contributing to anxiety that’s out of control.


There’s something else at work with stress and anxiety—the amount of “brain reserve” you have. Brain reserve is the extra cushion of brain function you have to help you deal with the stresses life throws at you. In general, the more brain reserve you have, the more resilient you are and the better your brain can handle stacked stresses to keep anxiety and other mental health disorders at bay. When brain reserve falls too low, that’s when anxiousness, depression, or other issues are more likely to develop.

The decisions you make on a daily basis and the habits you engage in are either boosting your brain’s reserve or stealing it and are either protecting you from mental health issues like anxiety or depression or making you more vulnerable to them. Take stock of your daily habits and ask yourself if they’re hurting your brain reserve or helping it.

Things that lower brain reserve include:

  • Head injuries

  • Excessive use of alcohol

  • Smoking

  • Eating junk food

  • Lack of new learning

  • Living in a chaotic environment

  • Exposure to environmental toxins

Things that increase brain reserve include:

  • Brain healthy diet

  • Limited exposure to toxins

  • Regularly engaging in new learning

  • Healthy relationships

  • Taking targeted nutraceuticals


Your brain is also key to determining if you’re experiencing temporary stress or lasting anxiety. Brain SPECT imaging, which measures blood flow and activity in the brain, can be helpful in determining if your brain is “stressed” or if you’re suffering from anxiety. And it can be especially useful in identifying your anxiety type. Amen Clinics, which has built the world’s largest database of functional brain scans—over 160,000 scans and growing—has found 7 different brain patterns associated with anxiety (and depression). Knowing your type is critical to getting the right treatment.

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