The Connection Between Anxiety and Stress

By The Understood Team

 

At a Glance

  • Stress and anxiety are not the same thing.
  • Both are common in kids who struggle in school.
  • Understanding the difference can help you find the best ways to help your child.

It’s common for kids who struggle in school to experience stress and anxiety. But are stress and anxiety the same thing? Many people use the terms interchangeably. The fact is, though, that stress and anxiety—while related—are different. And understanding the difference can help you find the best ways to help your child.

Read on to learn more about the connection between stress and anxiety.

Anxiety vs. Stress

Stress and anxiety are closely related, but they’re not the same thing.

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. Stress can:

  • Make us feel nervous, angry, and frustrated.
  • Have a positive effect. For example, it can “pump up” a child to study for a test.
  • Be overwhelming. Feeling stress every day for a long time can take a toll on your body and mind.

Not all stress is bad. There’s good stress, too. And there are many ways to help kids reduce different kinds of stress, like homework stress, back-to-school stress, and common high school stressors.

Anxiety is different. It’s a reaction to stress. It’s the feeling kids get when they don’t think they can handle the thing (or challenge) that’s putting pressure on them. That lack of control makes kids feel worried and afraid.

Here are some common aspects of anxiety:

  • An anxious feeling is often out of proportion to the real or imagined “threat” (for example, a child crying in terror because she’s afraid to enter a birthday party).
  • Anxious children may expect that something bad will happen and not believe they’ll be able to handle it. (That dog’s going to bite me and I’m going to die!)
  • “What if?” is a common phrase anxious kids say and think.

The bad feelings associated with anxiety can come from something specific, like algebra. Or anxiety can be a more general sense of uneasiness that affects much of everyday life.

As with stress, all kids feel anxious from time to time. Here are some common signs of anxiety:

It can be hard to know if your child’s level of anxiety is typical or something to be concerned about. You can see a chart that shows the difference between typical anxiety and an anxiety problem.

You can also download an anxiety log to help look for patterns in when and why your child feels anxious.

When Stress Leads to Anxiety

When kids feel stress for an extended period of time, they may have what’s called chronic stress.

For example, kids who struggle with math typically experience more failure with math than success. Every time they have to do a math problem, they feel stressed. When they do math homework, they may make errors that make them feel “stupid” the next day—and the stress continues. That’s chronic stress.

Chronic stress can lead to anxiety. Kids who experience chronic stress may start to think they just can’t do certain things. They develop a sense of worry or fear that no matter what they do, they’ll still fail. That’s anxiety.

To break the cycle and prevent anxiety, it’s important to help kids balance the “I cans” with the “I can’ts.” They need to experience the joy of success more often. One way to do this is by setting a competence anchor—helping kids connect the feeling of something they’re successful at with a task they’re struggling with. (Learn more about how to set a competence anchor.)

Anxiety and Kids Who Struggle in School

Just about everyone feels anxiety at some point. But kids who struggle in school may have extra reasons for feeling worried and afraid. These include:

  • Anxiety about not being able to keep up: Struggling students may notice they have trouble doing what their friends can do easily. They may be too hard on themselves in general or feel anxious about specific things, like tests.
  • Anxiety about feeling different: Kids who don’t do as well as their peers may worry theydon’t fit in. And kids who get extra support, like accommodations, might worry their classmates will notice they get more time on tests or will see them in the resource room.
  • Anxiety about the future: Teens who struggle in school may fear what’s after high school. “If I can’t pass a math test, how will I ever take the SAT?” Or they may worry they won’t be able to live away from home.

Anxiety is especially common in kids with ADHD. Some of the challenges that come along with ADHD can make kids anxious, like trouble with working memory and organization. These built-in challenges can make it hard for kids to have a sense of control. This increases anxiety.

Learn more about ADHD and anxiety. And read a personal story from a woman who struggles with both.

Other learning and thinking differences can be closely related to anxiety, too. Learn more about:

You may also want to learn about classroom accommodations for anxiety.

When to Seek Help

When anxiety stops a child from enjoying life, it can be a sign of an anxiety problem. It can be hard to know when it’s time to get your child help for mental health issues. If you’re concerned your child’s anxiety is interfering with everyday life, you may want to consider professional help. With the right treatment and support, kids with anxiety disorder do get better.

Learn about types of emotional help available for your child and anti-anxiety medication. You may also want to read more about anxiety from our founding partner the Child Mind Institute.

Key Takeaways

  • Stress is a natural response to a challenge. It can make us feel nervous or even “pumped up.”
  • Chronic stress can lead to anxiety, or a feeling of worry or fear.
  • When anxiety stops your child from enjoying life, it may be time to consider outside help.

About the Author

Understood Team Graphic

The Understood Team is composed of writers, editors and community moderators, many of whom have children with learning

 

Why Do Kids Have Trouble With Transitions? by Katherine Martinelli

How to Help Children Calm Down by Caroline Miller

Inclusion: What It Is And What It Isn’t by Karen Wang

Understanding Your Child’s Trouble With Impulsivity by Amanda Morin

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Autistic children’s sleep problems may stem from sensory issues by Nicholette Zeliadt 

Neurodiversity: What You Need to Know by Peg Rosen

Children with autism, co-occurring ADHD symptoms lag in key measures of independence by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

How Should a Mom React When a 10-Year-Old Calls Her a Bitch? by Beth Arky

Dyslexia Diagnosis & Treatment by Mayo Clinic Staff

Childhood apraxia of speech by Mayo Clinic Staff

and attention issues.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Jerome Schulz

Jerome Schultz, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Harvard Medical School Department of Child

Psychiatry.