What's the Difference between Stress and Anxiety?

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

What is the difference between stress and anxiety, anyway?

Stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably. There is some physiological validity to that. In our bodies, they can show up much in the same way - elevated heart rate, a tightness in our chests that makes it hard to breathe, feeling restless and scattered like you need to constantly be moving around.

When it comes to seeking treatment or getting help with both stress and anxiety,some of the techniques are often the same as well. So what is the difference? The short and simple answer is that stress is based on something that is actually happening in the present, and anxiety is based on something possibly happening in the future.

Stress is not and has not always been a negative thing. Stress is a great motivator. Stress is a response to something that gives us the motivation that we need in order to take action. I always like to use the example of early humans being hunted by a tiger. The stressor (the tiger) is chasing the human for a while, but then he eithers catches and kills the human, or somehow the human is able to fight back and kill his predator or get away from him. Either way, the stressor is out of the picture and the human can now go about his peaceful business. Fast forward to modern humans, and our stressors are no longer tigers, they are emails. They are phones buzzing and demanding our attention, deadlines at work and at home… you get the idea. The stressor does not just go away, it is always there. Because of this, our symptoms are always a little bit there. With 24 hour access to work (especially for those of us working at home) there is very little break or separation.

Anxiety is evolutionarily newer to humans. Anxiety is a fear based in the future and doesn’t necessarily need anything to facilitate its existence. This is why we have what is known as “generalized Anxiety”- it's just there and non specific. Anxiety can be a worry based on “what if…” and the fear is not always totally conscious. I experienced the loss of a really close friend in my early 20s, and for a few months after that I would get so worried and scared any time I was out of contact with my friends for more than 30 minutes or so. For you millennials and scene kids, this was right around the time that the Sidekick came out, so being in constant contact was very much possible. After going to a therapist and talking about my worries, we came to the conclusion that I had developed generalized anxiety around the possible loss of someone else. It had stemmed from my grief and turned into its own thing that I didn’t even recognize. This is just one example, but anxiety can also be naturally caused by your brain chemical makeup. I am not a scientist or medically trained, so I won’t even try to go into specifics on that. I encourage you to do some of your own research!

Hopefully that gives you a good idea of the very basic differences in stress and anxiety. This blog is meant to be simple, so please reach out to me if you have questions!

Now that we have an understanding of the difference, does the treatment need to be different or can it be the same since the symptoms are the same? Not necessarily. It depends on what you are able and willing to change as far as lifestyle, what your doctor is willing to prescribe and what you are willing to put into your body.

In a stressed or anxious state, you are operating in your sympathetic nervous system, which activates when there is a perceived threat (the tiger, email, or future fear) and encourages the body to go into fight or flight mode. This is the origin of some of those symptoms that I mentioned above - elevated heart rate, restlessness or feeling like you need to move, shallow breathing, and sometimes total freeze or shut down. What you want to do is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as your “rest and digest” system. When we are operating from here, our bodies are happily doing the things that they need to do for us to stay alive.

Ways to calm your nerves and activate Parasympathetic Nervous System:

In the Moment

  • Deep breathing - inhale all the way to your belly and exhale slowly

  • Drop your shoulders down- seriously, they’re probably up by your ears

  • Counting - silently or out loud, slowly count to 10

  • Positive affirmations - remind yourself that this is not a tiger trying to eat you

  • Fact check - is what you are thinking about present or future? Is it true? Is there anything that you can do to change it?

  • Ground Yourself - Look around your space, name something you can see, something you can feel, something you can hear, something you can smell, and something you can taste

To Do Daily to Cultivate Relaxation

  • Yoga or other movement (future blog to come about high intensity vs low intensity movement and mental health)

  • Deep Breathing

  • Mindfulness Routine

  • Eat low processed, natural foods

  • Decrease screen time - put your phone down and stare outside. No screens in the bedroom.

  • Get plenty of sleep!

These are all suggestions, of course. Ultimately it is up to you to find out what helps and works for you. Keep in mind that what works for now might not work in a few months, and that is ok. Our bodies and minds are constantly changing and our needs evolve with them.

If you are interested in working with me to help ease stress and anxiety, contact me today for a 15 minute consultation call! When we work together, I will use some of the above (and more) to help you stop feeling overwhelmed while making sure that you are still able to get it all done like the superstar that you are.

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