Published on September 01, 2020

Stress or Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference and When to Ask for Help

Feeling stressed out? It can sometimes be hard to determine what qualifies as stress and what might actually be classified as anxiety. Knowing how to distinguish the two may help provide indicators about when to seek help and what type of assistance is available if needed.

“Generally speaking, stress is a response to external causes,” said Kathy Dollard, Psy.D., L.P., director of behavioral health at MidMichigan Health. “Examples include preparing for an upcoming exam or job interview, bills coming in, or having an argument with a family member. Often, when external stressors are removed, one feels a little better. There are certainly a lot of unknowns and circumstances out of our control right now associated with COVID-19 that can cause stress.”

In times like these, Dollard says, it’s important to try managing stress by taking action. Many of the recommendations are already familiar: eat well, get plenty of sleep, exercise, limiting caffeine and journaling. Staying connected to support people, whether those are friends or family members, is very important, as well.

“We have to remember not to cut ourselves off from others. Talking about stressors with those close to us builds trust and strengthens bonds. Sometimes we mistakenly think we are the only ones that feel stressed out. When we talk to others, we realize that nobody has it all together, that we aren’t alone and our feelings are normal. Exchanging ideas can result in learning some management techniques we may not have considered before. We can be there for each other.”

There are times, however, when stress doesn’t easily dissipate or manifests internally, causing anxiety that is hard to quell. Anxiety that is persistent and causes an overwhelming feeling of dread or creates physical symptoms like headaches, stomach issues and loss of sleep should not be ignored.

“When circumstances level out or improve, but stress and anxieties stick around and become disruptive, it may be time to talk to a professional,” said Dollard.

A combination of psychotherapy and medication are sometimes needed to help manage anxiety. Psychotherapy helps the person learn how their thoughts, feelings and behaviors are inner-connected, and understand that avoiding circumstances or escaping situations maintains anxiety. Through therapy, people can turn their “what if” thinking into “then what,” quiet their minds and worries, and better understand and overcome any problems anxiety causes to learn make positive changes in life. Correcting chemical imbalances with medication enables most people who receive treatment to stop suffering and lead satisfying lives. Some anti-anxiety medication can lead to dependence, so it is important to work with the doctor to find the right medication.

“Mental health and physical health are interconnected,” Dollard continued. “Discussing your concerns with your primary care physician is important; they can advise and refer you to an appropriate professional.”

Those having trouble coping with anxiety and stress interferes with daily living are encouraged to reach out for help. The psychiatry group at MidMichigan Health offers self-referral with evening and telehealth visits available. Those interested in scheduling an appointment may call (989) 839-3385. Those interested in learning more about services available may visit