Parenting in the Time of COVID-19: Stress, Anxiety and Finding our Way Through: Part 1 of 4

Is this Stress or Anxiety? A guide to deciphering the differences

First in a four-part series with a new post each Tuesday in December

by Sarah Saffold, MSW, LMSW

We hear the buzzwords stress and anxiety on an almost daily basis in the world we are living in today. They become almost interchangeable and can be difficult to tell apart at times. Knowing the difference becomes very important as one has more severe risk factors associated with it.

Anxiety and stress are not always negative experiences. Both can warn us of danger and cause us to take other actions. They can also push us to become more productive or help to overcome challenges. Stress and anxiety become more serious when they are out of the realm of the normal experience on a daily basis for an extended period of time.

So what are the differences?

Stress is any sort of demand placed on your brain or physical body. Stress can feel like ​frustration or nervousness, difficulty concentrating, feeling overwhelmed, irritable or angry. Stress typically occurs from an external situation and then resolves once the situation is handled. A normal amount of worry or embarrassment or fear is healthy and can be defined more as stress.

Whereas, anxiety is more of a feeling of worry, dread, fear (rational or irrational), unease, panic, irrational anger, or experiencing phobias​. Anxiety happens more internally and is your response to stress that might be unchecked or unmanaged. Anxiety tends to persist once the actual situation or threat has resolved.

What you might notice physically:


  • Tension in shoulders
  • Grinding of teeth
  • Headache
  • Change in appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue


  • Nervous stomach
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweaty hands
  • Tingling hands
  • Shallow breathing
  • Shaking
  • Dizziness
  • Frequent urination/gastrointestinal problems
  • Insomnia

Anxiety symptoms tend to be a bit more severe or unmanageable. Many symptoms of both can overlap and intertwine, but if you are finding yourself with unrelenting thoughts that impair most of your days or cause you to avoid people/places, you are probably looking at more of an anxiety issue.

woman being comforted

The importance of noting these subtle differences are that chronic stress can develop into an anxiety order such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Phobia or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Anxiety and chronic stress over time can also cause physical problems as well such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or a more serious mood disorder.

If you find yourself experiencing symptoms that you can’t quite resolve on your own or have more questions about deciphering lingering problems you may have, be sure to reach out for help. We have many supportive providers at the Center for Mindfulness & CBT who are just a phone call away. To make sure you don’t miss the next three parts of this series, please subscribe below.

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