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The connection between anxiety and stress

By Gail Belsky

At a Glance

  • Stress is a response to a challenge. It’s usually temporary.

  • Ongoing stress can lead to anxiety.

  • There are simple ways to help with stress and anxiety.

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Many people think of stress and anxiety as being the same thing. But while they’re closely related, these strong feelings are very different. 

Stress is a natural response to a challenge. Changes in brain chemistry make our heart pump faster and our palms sweat as we get ready to act. We might feel nervous, angry, and frustrated. 

But stress can also have a positive effect . It can “pump up” a person to meet a challenge.

Anxiety is a reaction to stress. It happens when people don’t think they can handle the challenge that’s putting pressure on them. That lack of control makes them feel worried and afraid. 

Stress is often temporary. But when people feel it for an extended period of time, they may have what’s called chronic stress. And that can lead to anxiety. 

Dive deeper

Stress, anxiety, and learning and thinking differences

People who learn and think differently face challenges on a regular basis. So, they may feel more stress than other people. Ongoing stress can be a cause of anxiety.

But there’s also a direct link between anxiety and learning and thinking differences. Anxiety co-occurs with some differences. These include ADHD, dyslexia, slow processing speed, and trouble with sensory processing issues.

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What anxiety looks like

Just like with stress, all people feel anxious from time to time. But what they feel and the signs they show can be different. Here are some common aspects of anxiety:

  • The feeling is out of proportion to the real or imagined “threat.” For example, a child might cry in terror because of being afraid to enter a birthday party.

  • People expect that something bad will happen and they won’t be able to handle or stop it. For example, they might think, “That dog’s going to bite me and I’m going to die.”

  • “What if?” is a common phrase anxious people say and think.

See a list of signs of anxiety in younger kids and in tweens and teens .

How to help with stress and anxiety

There are simple ways to help with stress and anxiety. Deep breathing and mindfulness help kids and adults stay calm and focused on what’s happening now. Thinking about strengths and past successes can boost confidence. 

When people have trouble with learning or behavior, it’s important to get help for those challenges. Improving skills can help lessen the stress they face on a daily basis.

Plus, there are treatment options for problems with anxiety. These include talk therapy and medication, if needed.

For families: Get tips for helping kids and tweens and teens manage stress .

For educators: Discover classroom accommodations that can help with stress and anxiety .

For people who often feel anxious: Learn how to tell typical anxiety from an anxiety problem .

Related topics

Stress and anxiety Stress and anxiety

Did you know?

Many people have anxiety at some point in their lives — including kids. But people who learn and think differently are more likely to have anxiety than other people.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom