What is anxiety? Anxiety is a feeling of intense worry or uneasiness that we experience when we’re facing something stressful, often a situation with an uncertain outcome. In a concerning situation, feeling a certain amount of anxiety is normal, and can even be helpful – for example, it can help us stay motivated to meet deadlines, or even keep us safe in a scary situation.

But anxiety that’s too intense, or goes on for a long time, can stop being helpful to us and start interfering with our lives. If you’re feeling anxious, it’s important to understand what’s causing it, how it’s different than regular stress, and the different kinds of anxiety you might be experiencing.

What Causes Anxiety?

If you’ve experienced anxiety, you’re not alone: anxiety is one of the most common mental health challenges. And there are a number of both innate and environmental factors that help determine if and how we experience anxiety, including:

  • Genetics: Our genetics and family history play a big role in our mental health. If people in our family have experienced an anxiety disorder or struggle with anxiety, it may increase the likelihood that we will struggle.
  • Overall Mental Health: Experiencing other mental health conditions, like depression or an eating disorder can cause cognitive and emotional distortions that increase anxiety and challenge our ability to cope with anxiety in a healthy way.
  • Gender: Research has shown that cisgender women are more likely than men to experience certain types of anxiety disorders. For more on anxiety disorders, see the section below.
  • Background: How we grow up and the cultures we identify with can impact how we experience anxiety and our perspectives on how to best cope with those feelings. It can also influence how willing we are to seek help if we need it.
  • Environment: What is happening outside of us in areas that affect us, like work, school, relationships, or having to manage challenging life situations can have a powerful impact on how much anxiety we experience and on how well we cope with it.
  • Coping Skills: How we have learned to cope with anxiety and other difficult emotions is also a critical factor in how anxiety impacts our life and sense of wellbeing. Unhealthy coping mechanisms, like ignoring the feelings or numbing them with drugs or alcohol, can make anxiety worse.

What Anxiety Feels Like vs. What Stress Feels Like

All of these factors help determine whether we get anxious, to what degree that anxiety impacts our lives, and how we manage that anxiety. The good news is that, even if you are predisposed to be anxious, there are things you can do to reduce your anxiety and developing healthier coping skills.

All of us experience some level of what we recognize as anxiety from time to time. At low levels, this feeling is generally referred to as “stress” and can be a healthy and motivating response to a particular life situation. For example, feeling stress before an exam is normal and helps to motivate focus, which is typically helpful in such situations. But, sometimes our inner response is disproportionately larger than the external situation it is linked to or we feel high levels of agitation for reasons that are unclear to us. So, how do we discern stress from anxiety if they are variations on the same general feeling?

In general, you can figure this out by looking at how well the external situation matches the inner response (e.g. do the feelings make sense given the situation?) and how much the feelings you are having are impacting your sense of wellbeing and ability to get things done. When your inner agitation is interfering in your daily life or sense of wellbeing, especially when there is no obvious reason, then you may be experiencing levels of anxiety that might be worth checking out. Stress is a physical or mental tension in response to a trigger.

Triggers can be something external, like an event that happens to you, or from something internal, like your own thoughts. Stress is a normal part of life – while it can definitely be harmful in large doses, we typically feel stress at a level that’s in proportion to the trigger that’s causing it. Anxiety, on the other hand, takes that tension and turns it into bigger worries. Anxiety is often a response to fear, uncertainty, or doubts we have about something that’s causing us stress.

Let’s look at an example: it’s finals week and you aren’t ready for your tests. Stress would make you think, “I don’t have time to study for all of these finals!” Anxiety would take your stress and add to it the fears, doubts, and expectations you might feel: “I am never going to get caught up on my studying. I will probably fail my finals and flunk out of school, and then everyone will think I’m a failure.” These thoughts will cause different emotional and physiological reactions. Stress may make you sigh, reevaluate priorities and double down on your studying efforts. Anxiety, on the other hand, may lead to a decrease in studying and an increase in non-helpful behaviors, like excessive worry, use of substances, food or other non-productive distractions. Anxiety disorders also do not stop when the external stressor stops and may even end up causing additional stressors.

Here is another example: you’ve gotten really busy at work, and you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by how much work you have to do. Stress would make you think, “This is way too much work for me to get done today” and would like you lead to you reassessing your priorities and removing things from your to do list, even if it meant having an uncomfortable conversation with a supervisor or co-worker. If the stress gave way to clinical levels of anxiety, then you might start engaging in catastrophic thinking,“Everyone is putting too much pressure on me. But if I don’t finish this work, I’ll get fired. If I get fired, how will I pay my rent and my insurance?” or you might become so agitated that you have a hard time getting anything on your to do list done and cannot stop worrying about what could happen in the future.

Intrusive thoughts like these – agitating or otherwise troubling thoughts that become stuck in your mind – are one common symptom of anxiety. Other psychological symptoms of anxiety include becoming easily irritated and having trouble focusing. Anxiety can cause physical reactions too, like headaches, muscle pain, increased heart rate, and trouble sleeping. In severe cases, like some of those we cover below, anxiety can cause disorientation, uncontrollable fear or worry, and inability to think clearly or to make good decisions.

If you find yourself reacting like this to stressful situations, you can learn to manage your anxiety and separate a typical stress reaction from an outsized anxious reaction.