Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Anxiety

The Difference Between Stress and an Anxiety Disorder

As in-person activities resume, some may feel a different kind of anxiety.

Key points

  • Many tend to confuse stress with anxiety disorders, but they are not the same.
  • Stress is temporary, but anxiety disorders are ongoing and may require treatment.
  • Re-entry anxiety describes the fear associated with returning to "normal," pre-pandemic routines as businesses reopen.
Ljubaphoto/Getty Images
Source: Ljubaphoto/Getty Images

It’s no secret that after a year of social distancing and mask-wearing, our collective mental health has suffered. The American Psychological Association discovered that 78 percent of Americans have characterized the pandemic as a major source of stress. Almost two-thirds of Americans say that part of their stress stems from uncertainty, according to the same survey. Over a year after the onset of COVID-19 in the United States, it remains important for us to check in with ourselves and our mental health.

What Is Stress?

As the body’s fight-or-flight reaction to fear, stress is a natural part of life that is unavoidable. In smaller doses, stress can be a motivating force for change, making people more tolerant of discomfort and helping them become emotionally resilient. When a person feels stressed, they may experience racing thoughts, muscle tension, and rapid breathing. Because this physiological response makes people better equipped to safeguard themselves against danger, stress can be beneficial in moderation.

By contrast, long-term stress can harm the body and mind, causing sleep disturbance, weakening the immune system, and even contributing to the onset of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, and mental health disorders, including anxiety disorders.

What Is an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition distinguished by ongoing feelings of fear or tension. There are varying degrees of anxiety, and some forms are accompanied by disruptive symptoms, such as panic attacks or compulsive behavior. Anxiety disorders often co-occur with other mental health or substance use disorders.

What Is the Difference Between Anxiety Disorders and Stress?

Not all people who experience stress have an anxiety disorder, which is a more severe condition that can be difficult to manage, but stress is a symptom of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Unlike stress, anxiety can be a constant state of mind. A stressed person may experience fleeting moments of concern, while a person with anxiety usually experiences symptoms for longer periods of time. It is crucial to address anxiety early on, as anxiety disorders can have a snowball effect on a person’s life, potentially leading to other conditions such as depression or substance use disorder. A Psychiatric Times study found that anxiety disorders led to alcohol and drug addiction in at least 75 percent of comorbidity cases.

For someone with anxiety, negative thoughts can build over time, causing sufferers to fixate on one trigger before thinking about another source of distress. People with an anxiety disorder might feel stressed over mundane responsibilities, whereas people who are simply stressed may feel concerned about deadlines for one-off occurrences, such as an important work or school project, or a loved one’s upcoming surgery.

While stress may not disrupt a person’s daily activities, an anxiety disorder can hinder a person’s ability to function at work or around others by making sufferers too mentally preoccupied to focus on ordinary tasks. Though many people who are stressed do not require treatment, it is recommended that those who struggle with anxiety seek some form of clinical treatment, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, or if necessary, medication.

What Is Re-entry Anxiety?

Anxiety can take several forms, but as the world re-opens after weathering the pandemic for over a year, some are struggling specifically with re-entry anxiety, which has also been called FOGO (fear of going out). Re-entry anxiety is a newer term coined by medical professionals as a result of the coronavirus-induced lockdown and the fears many people have about re-acclimating to “normal” life as more Americans become vaccinated, more businesses resume in-person operations, and CDC guidelines loosen.

Not everyone is on the same page yet; have compassion for those still fearful of resuming their “normal” routines. The country has been through a collective trauma, and everyone will have different reactions as we inch closer to a post-pandemic world. Those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or suffered personally from the virus, for example, may need more time to adjust, along with those who have not ventured far from home out of concern regarding the coronavirus’s health risks.

As with other anxiety disorders, reach out to a mental health professional if re-entry anxiety causes extreme stress or interferes with your daily life.

References

American Psychological Association. (2020). COVID-19 is a significant stressor for most Americans. https://www.apa.org/images/sia-2020-covid-stress_tcm7-279798.jpg

American Psychological Association (2020). Stress in America™ 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis.

Smith, J. P., & Book, S. W. (2008). Anxiety and substance use disorders: A review. The Psychiatric Times, 25(10), 19–23.

advertisement