The industrialized world has collectively become more stressed out and anxious. There are seemingly endless tasks to complete and a lot of pressure to get those things done by a certain time. Working long hours, trying to keep up with social obligations, and constantly hearing about terrorism and natural disasters on the news has created a global epidemic of constant stress. Many people also feel anxious about what the future holds.
Despite being used together much of the time, stress and anxiety are not the same thing. This article will cover what counts as stress, what is considered anxiety, and how they are different.
What is Stress?
The word stress is often used to describe a variety of feelings: anger, overwhelmedness, concern, worry, and even anxiety. All of these can in fact apply to the definition of stress if the circumstance is right.
In the dictionary, stress is defined as a specific response to an external stimulus. It generally manifests as a physical response when the body thinks it is being attacked.
Adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine are known as the stress hormones. These hormones speed up your breathing and your heart rate, and are behind that sudden burst of energy you feel in a tense situation. If you are in a situation where you need to respond to stress, such as an intense workout or running for your life in an emergency, this reaction is exactly what you need to get through the situation.
However, this isn’t the only time in which people feel stress. In fact, most people regularly stress over situations that don’t pose any real threat to them. The situation might call for some concern, but day to day experiences rarely call for high alert. When your body goes into fight or flight mode in reaction to a non-life threatening situation, it takes blood flow away from your brain and redirects it to the muscles it thinks you will need to run away or fight back. This is why many people have a hard time thinking straight under a lot of strain.
When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to many complications. Being stressed out all of the time can lead to chest pain, heart palpitations, headaches, high blood pressure, loss of sleep, and skin irritation. There is also research showing a link between chronic stress and gut issues, such as stomach pain and diarrhea, that are becoming more common among the American population. Have you ever had a stomach ache after a particularly stressful day at work? There’s a reason for that.
What is Anxiety?
In simple terms, anxiety is a feeling of fear, apprehension, or doom that takes over your mind and body. The mental symptoms are usually more pronounced than the physical ones, but those symptoms can be devastating.
Feelings of anxiety can come from any scenario: from a dreaded test at school or presentation at work to making it onto the bus during rush hour. Anxiety can be linked to an obvious external stressor, but sometimes it can take over for no apparent reason.
Symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling nervous or restless
- Sense of impending doom
- Increased heart rate
- Excessive worry
Anxious feelings often stick around even after the source of anxiety is long gone. If you feel an unease about the future, or are worried about the state of the world, it’s likely you’re dealing with anxious feelings.
When anxiety takes over your life, it can be classified as one of several types of disorders. If your symptoms last for a long period of time, and are very severe, it’s likely you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder.
How Do They Differ?
Anxiety can be a symptom of stress, but it is not the same as stress. Though the differences between them might seem subtle, they contrast enough to be considered different feelings.
Anxiety usually comes from worries about external events. Someone might be worried about how a lower income will affect their life, and jump to conclusions about what their future might look like. Whereas stress is triggered by external expectations or situations. If your boss recently yelled at you for messing up at work, you’ll likely feel stress over it for a few days.
Stress is a result of an external factor. Anxiety is when that stress doesn’t go away, and you start to worry about those situations recurring, or how your future will be impacted based on the results of your actions in those moments.
Feeling stressed doesn’t always have to end badly. Some people can be stressed about something while it is happening, but be just fine after the event is over. Others are impacted by that stress for days, sometimes even weeks or months, after the stressor is gone.
Not everyone will feel anxious after a stressful event has happened. But if you put a worry prone person through the same situation, and they are likely to develop lingering anxiety over what happened. Differences in brain chemistry and genetic makeup can influence how people handle stress. In one study, those who had neuroflexibility in their prefrontal cortex were less likely to develop toxic coping methods like binge drinking or drug abuse.
When someone is feeling stressed about something, they are nervous or frustrated about the expectations that have been placed on them. However, when someone is feeling anxious, they are afraid or worried about the past, present, or future.
Stress is a reasonable reaction to unpleasant situations. If you’re in a mountain of debt, are experiencing some difficulties in your relationship, or have reason to expect a natural disaster, it’s perfectly understandable why you might be feeling stressed.
Anxiety is several steps beyond stress. It involves excessive worry and expecting the worst, even when you have no reason to believe the worst will happen.
If you’re experiencing panic attacks, it’s likely you’re dealing with anxiety and not stress. For those who don’t know what a panic attack is, it’s easy to equate it to feeling panicky. A panic attack is actually an extreme state of fear that can cause many unpleasant physical symptoms. Panic attacks can happen for no reason, and need professional help to be treated.
Why Do They Get Mixed Up?
One of the biggest reasons that stress and anxiety get mixed up is that one is a result of the other. Anxiety is stress that hangs around after the stressor is gone. Because anxiety stems from stress, it’s easy to mistake anxiety for stress and vice versa. The two are so closely related that they can seem like different names for the same issue.
Stress and anxiety have similar physical symptoms. Both lead to faster heartbeats, rapid breathing, and tense muscles. When experienced over a long period of time, chronic stress and chronic anxiety can lead to gastrointestinal issues, heart disease, and a compromised immune system.
Most importantly, stress and anxiety are both really unpleasant. They create and exacerbate unpleasant feelings. Stress or anxiety can make it difficult to think straight, which makes it difficult to go about your life.
It’s possible for someone to feel stressed and anxious. The two often travel together. However, understanding the difference between the two will help you to figure out the best way to reduce your stress or anxiety levels and get back to a better state of life. If you can identify that you’re dealing with anxiety, and not stress, you’ll be in a better position to seek help and start recovering sooner.