On any given day you’ll probably say something like, “This is stressing me out,” or “That’s making me anxious,” or “I’m so overwhelmed.” But, ICYMI, these feels are definitely not interchangeable. Sure, there might be a little overlap in how stress vs. anxiety vs. overwhelm show up mentally, emotionally, and physically, but understanding what makes each of them unique can help you deal in a more effective way.
Below, we explain what each feeling feels like, what can trigger it, and exactly what to do when it crops up to process it like the emotionally intelligent human you are.
What is stress?
Raise your hand if “stress” feels like your baseline emotion these days. That’s understandable.
What makes stress, stress, though, is that it’s caused by something that is actually happening or that you have to deal with right now—not some future situation that might happen someday, explains licensed clinical psychologist Nicole Hayes, PhD.
Stress requires a stressor, like a salty email from your boss or an argument with a friend or partner. That said, a concrete situation that takes more than this very moment to do something about (like an upcoming final exam, a divorce, or a health issue) can also stress you out. TL;DR a stressful event is real, it’s happening, and you’re in the middle of it.
Physically, stress often shows up as muscle tension—especially in your shoulders, says Dr. Hayes. If you feel like a turtle with your shoulders scrunching up towards your ears and your back is killing you, you might be inhabiting Stressville, population: everyone.
How to deal with stress
If you’re always feeling stressed, it can be hard to recognize that you are, indeed, stressed. But recognizing that emotion when it comes up is the first step in dealing with it. “We often pretend that we're not stressed, we can handle it, we’re fine, but when we don’t allow ourselves to feel the stress, it just increases,” Dr. Hayes explains. That’s because, like with all feelings, it won’t go away until you acknowledge that it’s there.
From there, get clear on what you can and cannot control about the thing that’s stressing you out. So, yes, you can start chipping away on that big work project. But, no, you can’t control what your boss will think about it. Then, make a game plan for tackling the things you can actually do something about.
“Creating some structure to move through the stressful event can be helpful,” suggests licensed clinical psychologist Kruti Patel, PhD. You could start with a basic to-do list or break up your large task into smaller pieces that feel less intimidating. Making a daily routine that gets you closer to doing whatever needs doing and keeping a planner can also help you stay organized and therefore less stressed. “All of these tools involve externalizing and planning, which help you to reduce your mental load,” says Dr. Patel.
And don’t forget about your basic self-care, says Dr. Hayes. “When you’re stressed, taking care of yourself can go out the window. Meeting your needs and doing things that feel good should be part of the plan.” So don’t keep hustling without drinking water, having something to eat, and taking breaks to shake it out.
If your stress never seems to go away even after the deadline, it might be worth finding a mental health professional who can help. Chronic stress is just plain bad for you—and often suggests you need to make more changes than using a planner (like applying for new jobs, finally dumping them, etc.). This kind of support can help you make big moves to reclaim some peace.
What is anxiety?
Unlike stress, anxiety is all about the dark, ominous cloud of what-ifs. You’re stressed about your current work project but you’re anxious about your overall job performance or the future of your career, Dr. Hayes explains. It’s all hypotheticals, none of which you have any real control over.
It’s also harder to shake than stress. “Anxiety tends to be more persistent and often manifests as worrisome thoughts that stick around, even beyond the duration of a stressor,” says Dr. Patel. “Sometimes anxiety can even pop up in the absence of an external stressor.” Love this for us.
So, mentally, anxiety looks like rumination, worrying, and racing thoughts. Physically, you might feel your heart pounding, a fluttery feeling in your chest or stomach, or a really bad stomach ache, Dr. Hayes notes. You might also feel sweaty and hot, she adds.
How to deal with anxiety
Quick FYI: The physical feels of anxiety and excitement are really similar, so it’s always a good idea to check in with yourself when you’ve got butterflies in your stomach, suggests Dr. Hayes.
If, yep, it’s definitely anxiety, acknowledging its presence can help, just like it can with stress. That said, the key to soothing an anxious brain is taking an additional step:
Remind yourself that your anxious thoughts aren’t facts or based on reality. They’re just a way for your mind to feel a sense of control about something that is, in fact, very much not in your control. With that in mind, it might be helpful to allow those thoughts to flow into your consciousness and back out of it like leaves floating on a stream, (Soothing, right?)
From there, try some grounding exercises (like journaling) that bring you back to the present moment (because, remember, anxiety is all about the future, so focusing on the present can help bring you back to the here and now). Breathe in for a count of four (one Mississippi, two, Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi) and out for the same count, Dr. Hayes says. Pay attention to the feeling of your lungs filling up for maximum chill-out benefits. It might even help to say to yourself (silently or out loud) something reassuring like: Right now, in this moment, you are safe.
As with stress, anxiety can also be eased (sometimes) by looking for the next smallest step you can take in dealing with whatever you’re anxious about. “Start with those stress management tools to organize and externalize some of the mental burden,” Dr. Patel suggests. And, again, don’t forget to take care of yourself by prioritizing sleep, movement, and taking breaks, all of which can help reduce your anxiety levels, says Dr. Patel.
Coping with anxiety obviously takes work and doesn’t happen overnight, so if you feel like you could use some help navigating, it might be time to look into an assist from a mental health professional.
What is overwhelm?
When stress or anxiety go unchecked for too long, it can turn into overwhelm. This can show up in two ways: Either you’re frantically moving from task to task (without actually being productive) or you’re frozen and totally unable to do anything, says Dr. Hayes. It’s also possible to swing between both versions of overwhelm, she adds. So fun.
Overwhelm can be a vicious cycle because you’re trying to do so much but can’t accomplish anything, which leaves you in a puddle of hopelessness before you spring into action again—and continue to get nothing done. It can feel like no matter how hard you try, you’re powerless to do anything that’ll actually help.
The tricky thing about overwhelm is that it’s often just the natural consequence of a culture that rewards us for doing more, more, more and in which being exhausted is a badge of honor, Dr. Hayes says. (We all know that person who looks absolutely dead in the eyes but subtly brags about how they went to the gym at 6 a.m., worked a 12-hour day, and then stayed up late studying to become a certified workaholic or whatever.) But how many gold stars are we awarded for taking care of ourselves? UMM, ZERO. You see how overwhelm is a pretty obvious result here? We’re all walking around every day pretty much primed to hit the point of overwhelm.
How to deal with overwhelm
Your only must-do when overwhelm strikes is to take a damn break. “Anything that isn’t truly important can wait,” says Dr. Hayes. “Take as much time as you can—if you’re lucky enough to have vacation or leave days, use them to prioritize yourself.”
When you can take a sec, start by getting grounded, suggests Dr. Patel. Focus on something physical, like your feet planted on the floor. Better yet, ignore your phone and/or go for a walk. All of this works to get your emotions back to a regulated place.
Only once you’ve done that can you even consider tackling small tasks from the list of things overwhelming you. If your apartment is an absolute disaster, just do the laundry or just wash the dishes (or just one dish!). Allow yourself to slowly build up the momentum to check off the things that feel important, Dr. Hayes says.
Once again, the basic self-care moves that can mitigate stress and anxiety (drinking water, having a snack, taking regular breaks) are also clutch for avoiding overwhelm, Dr. Hayes says. And support from a mental health pro can also help you get a handle on this one. Working with a therapist can help you identify the time- and energy-suckers contributing to the vicious cycle and develop the tools to bust out of it for good.
The bottom line: You’re not wrong in thinking that stress, anxiety, and overwhelm feel pretty damn similar. But recognizing the subtle nuances of each one can help you process them in a more effective way. It also helps us get on the same page about what we’re really feeling. One last thing, if you’re feeling any of these emotions all the damn time, that’s a great reason to seek out some professional support. You got this!
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.