What's the Difference between Stress and Anxiety?
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
What is the difference between stress and anxiety, anyway?
Stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably. Physically, this makes sense. In our bodies stress and anxiety look the same- elevated heart rate, a tight chest that makes it hard to breathe, feeling restless and scattered like you need to constantly be moving around.
When it comes to getting professional help for stress and anxiety, or for both ,some of the techniques are often the same. So what is actually the difference between stress and anxiety?
The short and extremely 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.
Is stress always bad? Not at all. Some stress can be positive and even useful. Good stress is called eustress. 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 either catches and kills the human, or somehow the human is able to fight back or get away. Either way, the stressor is gone and the human can now go about his peaceful business (I highly recommend the book, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky if you are interested in more information like this).
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. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was afraid that something had happened to them and they, too, had died suddenly. 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. This isn't the blog for that topic, maybe another time.
Now that we have an understanding of the difference between stress and anxiety, 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.
Below is a list of some lifestyle changes that can help you to manage stress and/or anxiety.
Ways to calm your nerves when feeling stressed or anxious:
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 Stay More Calm
Yoga or other movement (future blog to come about high intensity vs low intensity movement and mental health)
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.
Kaylin is a licensed therapist in Orange County, California. She works with people pleasers, perfectionists, and high functioning professionals who tend to suffer in silence with anxiety, stress and overwhelm. Learn more here and schedule a consultation call if you want to work with Kaylin.
Book a free consultation today to see if she is a good fit to help you!