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Working with Patients Suffering from Stress, Anxiety, and Trauma

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When a patient is facing a difficult situation, it is your job as their provider to help them find ways to navigate it. Through evidence-based interventions and educating your patients on techniques, they may be able to learn how to manage better whatever it is they are facing leading to less suffering.

Physically, the body can react similarly to things like stress, anxiety, and traumatic experiences. Patients do not always know how to distinguish between the three and therefore do not always know the best way to manage their responses. Providers who know the differences can establish an effective treatment plan that gives their patients the tools they need to manage their symptoms better.

Differences Between Stress, Anxiety, and Trauma Response

Stress and anxiety are confused quite often. You might hear a patient say, “I’ve been feeling a lot of stress lately,” when they’ve been showing symptoms of anxiety, or vice versa. To add another layer in, patients dealing with trauma often confuse anxiety symptoms with responses to trauma. So, what is the difference between the three, and how does this impact a treatment plan?


Everyone experiences stress. It is a normal response from the human body to challenges/adjustments/stressors. Positive stress is when someone has something important coming up, and an average amount of stress helps them stay alert and do a good job. An example of negative stress might be when it prevents someone from winding down before bed, causing them to get less sleep.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, symptoms of stress include things like:

  • increased heart rate
  • trouble sleeping
  • high blood pressure
  • muscle tension
  • stomach/digestive issues
  • And others

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Anxiety is a normal sensation that everyone might feel at one point or another. The feelings of anxiety on their own are different from someone having an anxiety disorder. Someone with an anxiety disorder has a frequent, persistent worry or fear that is present in regular, everyday situations.

Symptoms of an anxiety disorder might include:

  • panic attacks that interfere with daily life
  • feelings of nervousness/restlessness/panic/doom
  • increased heart rate
  • feeling being in danger
  • Sweating
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Worry
  • Avoidance
  • Fatigue

There are several types of anxiety disorders, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), panic disorder, agoraphobia, and separation anxiety disorder.

While some symptoms of anxiety disorders and stress overlap, the main difference is the time of duration. Stress tends to dissipate. It is a response to a temporary citation that goes away and usually has a recognizable cause. Anxiety, on the other hand, might not have a cause that is easy to identify and tends to stick around longer.


Trauma is another category altogether. The APA defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event.” These events could be anything from an accident to a natural disaster or even a personal attack. Individuals can respond to trauma in different ways, all of which are normal. When someone is experiencing a traumatic response, they are experiencing an emotional reaction to this event in their life.

This sounds similar to stress. When we feel stress, we are responding to a stressor in our life that causes a physical response in our body, causing us to become more alert and react in that situation. Trauma is more than that. The details of the traumatic event are so terrible that patients often experience intense emotional responses.

According to the National Center for PTSD, some common reactions to trauma include:

  • Losing hope for the future
  • Feeling distance/losing a sense of concern about others
  • Being unable to concentrate
  • Feeling jumpy/easily startled
  • Feeling on guard or alert at all times
  • Having dreams that upset you
  • Having problems with work or school
  • Avoiding people/places related to the event

Symptoms related to trauma include:

  • Upset stomach
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Substance use
  • Worsting medical problems
  • Feelings of helplessness or fear
  • Feelings of shock/numbness
  • Feelings of anger
  • Easily irritable
  • Blaming oneself

Again, symptoms of trauma can overlap with that of anxiety or stress, but at a much more intense level. The main difference is that with trauma, there is an event that these symptoms can be tied back to, whereas, with anxiety, it can be hard to pinpoint a source. With stress, there may be a source or an event that symptoms are tied to, but the symptoms do not linger and are not consuming or interfering with daily life.

Being able to pinpoint the differences between stress, anxiety, and trauma will enable providers to create treatment plans that improve their patient’s outcomes. Keep detailed track of all your patient’s history and information with quality therapy notes software that allows you to track progress notes, monitor progress, and create custom forms to fit every need.

Therapy Brands is on a mission to help providers create better efficiency to reach as many patients as possible. Give our platform a try—for free—with a 21-day trial, no credit card required.



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