Stress: a state of mental or emotion strain/tension resulting from unpleasant or very demanding circumstances.
Anxiety: a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.
These are just basic definitions from Oxford, they may resonate with you or they may not. When I was younger, I had no idea what was wrong, but I know I felt alone and like I was the only one feeling this pain. Since then, I have come to realize that is obviously not true, and I am definitely not alone. I have spent a long time deciphering my own thoughts, emotions, and feelings asking myself “What is the difference between stress and anxiety?”.
Once I started to realize the difference, I spent an even longer time trying to explain my feelings to others trying to get them to see the difference. This can be such a hard task if you are dealing with people who are blessed to live their life free of anxiety and/or ample amounts of stress.
Although the generalized definitions above are true, I have very specific definitions that resonate specifically with me and my personal situation.
What Stress Means To Me
Stress is brought on by temporary external stressors, the keyword being temporary. When I think of stressors, I am thinking of many things, including, but not limited to the following: a job interview, a birthday party or event I am responsible for planning, buying a new car, buying a house, looking for a new apartment to rent, worrying about a sick pet, or getting into a fight with a friend or significant other.
When I am presented with one of these stressors, I begin focusing all of my attention on the event, giving myself no breaks. I am 100% dedicated to doing the hours of research and preparation necessary to make the most informed decision known to man.
It is honestly ridiculous the amount of time I waste stressing about things that are just temporary! I am constantly giving myself pep talks to reassure me that this too shall pass.
Chronic stress occurs for me when I am dealing with a stressful event that is temporary, but not as temporary as one would hope.
STORYTIME! For example, I just recently went through a very stressful job transition process within less than 9 months. I was promoted after a very extensive promotion process including prerequisite requirements, a written exam, and an oral interview. In search of a better work/life balance and a healthier work environment, I decided to leave that company and I went through multiple interviews to do so.
After roughly 3 months in my new position, I was asked to go back to my old job with another promotion. Coincidentally, I was also presented with another opportunity that was too good to pass up and I ended up going through 2 different interview processes with my old company as well as the new company!
This all happened within LESS THAN 9 MONTHS.
We all know how stressful job transition can be, but for someone who obsesses over stressors the way that I do, the situation definitely turned into chronic stress. I formed a habit of grinding my teeth throughout the day which resulted in headaches, my patience was at an all-time low, my brain was running a mile a minute at all hours of the day.
Being that in my personal situation this is also coupled with anxiety, you can imagine what road this all leads down.
What Anxiety Means To Me
Anxiety is brought on by an internal chemical imbalance in the brain. This is something that can be brought on by chronic stress, or learned behavior from a parent/family member. There are studies that have shown it is also hereditary.
When I think of anxiety, I think of an uncontrollable and sometimes unbearable pain/tension in my chest. I think of taking deep breaths multiple times per hour trying to reach for some relief. I think of going weeks at a time without feeling a single second of relief from the weight on my chest, to the point I am fed up.
Weeks and weeks of constant anxiety has led me to short-term depression more than a few times.
When these symptoms started to progress for me, I had already done plenty of research to realize there was no reason for panic. This one simple thing was a game-changer for me.
“This is just anxiety, there is no reason to panic”.
There were dozens of times the pain was so unbearable I was impressed with myself for keeping this state of mind.
It was extremely difficult to do, but I would simply remember that fact, and start distracting myself. I would tell my friends to turn the music up and don’t focus attention on me. I would continue doing whatever I was in the middle of doing and tell myself it would be fine, and it absolutely was.
Before I knew it, the pain was gone. I know this is easier said than done, but it worked wonders for me and saved me dozens of trips to the hospital for a panic attack. However, this did eventually led to my seeking medical attention as these episodes became too frequent to bear.
The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety For Me
So what is the difference between stress and anxiety? For me, the main difference is that anxiety is completely out of my control. I can not just “get over it” or “stop worrying” with the flip of a switch. Even with dozens of stress management techniques or even during the points of my life when everything is going just right.
There doesn’t have to be an explanation or reason, sometimes it just is, and there is nothing I can do about it. Stress, on the other hand, is something that I am more likely to be able to control with stress management techniques.
What Do The Professionals Say?
There are millions of articles to be found online in regard to stress and anxiety, here are some a few points made by researchers and professionals:
- Panic attacks are a result of anxiety, not stress.
- Stress symptoms subside after the stressful event has passed
- Anxiety lingers and sometimes requires treatment
- Stress can come in stages, it is important to realize when you are reaching a state of chronic stress
- Some stress is a healthy and natural response to a challenge that provides us the adrenaline and motivation necessary to complete tasks.
- Stress is connected with current events that are causing you to be overwhelmed, while anxiety can be connected with things that may not even be realistic
Stress vs. Anxiety Symptom Chart
|Difficulty sleeping||Uncontrollable and sometimes unbearable tension/pressure/pain in the chest|
|Nervousness, sweaty palms, fidgetting||Excessive Worrying, asking yourself “What if…” constantly. (worrying yourself physically ill). Worrying about things that have not happened yet, or things that are not certain to happen: ex: if someone doesn’t like you, if you fail, if your relationship fails, if you don’t get the new job or the promotion, if you can’t afford to pay your bills, etc.|
|Noticing a shorter fuse with your temper, feelings of anger or frustration||Panic attacks|
|Short term feelings of being overwhelmed that subside when a stressor has passed||Long term negative feelings/thoughts for weeks or even months at a time|
|Feeling hyper-focused on one specific task or event||Difficulty concentrating with no prior diagnosis of ADHD or learning disability|
Final Opinions From Me
Chronic stress or long term stress can lead to anxiety and it isn’t something that should be pushed to the side or taken lightly. If you are feeling an abnormal amount of stress and are beginning to feel like you’re barely treading water, please do some additional research of your own to become more in tune with your body.
Long term feelings of anxiety can lead to depression.
Utilize the symptom chart above to determine if what you are feeling is stress or anxiety. Do not be afraid to seek professional help. As always, if you have any questions or would like me to elaborate on any of the above-mentioned topics I would happy to do so. I am not a licensed professional, but I have extensive personal experience with both Stress and Anxiety and may be able to give helpful advice.