From time to time while talking with clients, I’ve noticed that people often mix up stress and anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, it’s easy-to-use stress and anxiety interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. So what’s the difference?
What Is Stress?
According to Selye (1956), the father of stress research, Hans Selye, M.D, defined stress as being “a non-specific response of the body to a demand”. This simple definition is still recognised to this day as one of the best physiological definitions for stress and its effect on our bodies.
Stress is a normal bodily response to certain types of change, demand, or threat that can manifest emotionally, mentally, or physically (Bridges to Recovery). This can be in response to internal or external pressures, as a way to protect from potential harm so the body can regain its normal state (Selye, 1956).
Stress is inevitable. To be entirely without stress is to be dead!
Everyone will experience stress, but not everyone will experience stress in the same way, because we all respond to stress differently (Bridges to Recovery). This is one of the reasons why making comparisons is so problematic.
But not all stress is unpleasant (Selye, 1956). Good stress can help motivate us and help us focus on what we need to do (Bridges to Recovery). Whereas bad stress can cause insomnia, procrastination, be determinantal to our wellbeing, and take a physical toll on our bodies.
According to Healthline, stress symptoms can include:
- Muscle tension.
- Digestive issues, including nausea and diarrhoea.
- Anger or irritability.
- Increased sweating.
- Feelings of being overwhelmed.
- Changes in appetite.
- Cause an increase in heart rate, also known as tachycardia.
What Is Anxiety?
Whereas stress is where your body responds to some form of internal or external demand placed on the body, anxiety is a persons internal reaction to stress (Mental Health First Aid USA).
Just like stress, anxiety is also a normal response by the body. However, anxiety can become problematic when it becomes an oversized reaction to what would be considered reasonable (Bridges to Recovery). Unlike stress, anxiety can persist after the situation, object, or person of concern has passed (Mental Health First Aid USA).
Anxiety is usually a feeling and psychological state of anticipation of potential harm (Mental Health First Aid USA). This is why you can feel like you’re at risk of harm in non-harmful situations when you’ve developed an anxiety disorder. This is what happened to me when I developed my two anxiety disorders.
According to Healthline, anxiety can involve the same symptoms as stress, but also the following:
- A feeling of impending doom.
- Tingling or numbness.
- Brain fog.
What’s The Relationship Between Stress And Anxiety?
Why’s it important to know the similarities and differences between stress and anxiety? Well, although stress and anxiety can go together like a hand in a glove, with stressful events triggering anxiety (Bridges to Recovery), they’re not the same thing. If you can understand this, you’ll be better able to manage both stress and anxiety as they rear their annoying little heads (Psych Central).
Stress and anxiety come with biological nuances that can be complex but distinguish the two states (Daviu, Bruchas, Moghaddam, Sandi, and Beyeler, 2019). But that margin of separation can be seen as a fine line (APA), because of their overlapping relationship.
Simply put, the key difference between stress and anxiety is the presence of a specific trigger, as stress is usually tied to a specific situation (Healthline). Think work deadline and how the stress will go once the work deadline has been achieved. This differs from anxiety because that doesn’t need a specific trigger or stressor. This means that someone can experience persistent and excessive worry absent of stressors (APA).
This presence of a stressor or not is an essential distinction between stress and anxiety. This is the difference between the stress of being involved in an accident and the worrying that you could end up in an accident if you leave the home or drive a car alone (Daviu, Bruchas, Moghaddam, Sandi, and Beyeler, 2019).
Luckily, the (APA) state that stress and anxiety in their mild forms can be managed using the same coping mechanisms.
Stress And Anxiety Coping Strategies
I won’t go too in-depth on this, as I have articles that cover ways to manage stress and anxiety as separate issues already, but I’ll cover a few of the basics.
Most things are easier to manage when you’re able to get a good night’s sleep, which, for some of us, is easier said than done. If you’re struggling to sleep, then check out my article on CBT-I (click here to read it) which has information on how to overcome insomnia by improving your sleep hygiene.
This can be anything from doing yoga, going to a HIIT class, or just going for a brisk walk for 30 minutes (APA). Every little bit helps, and along with it helping you tackle stress, it will also help you to improve your sleep.
As I said in my article about the mental health benefits of nature (click here to read it), spending time around nature can reduce stress. Even a house plant or images of nature can have this positive effect. But if you’re going to start adding walks to your day, then why not go for a walk through your local park?
These are good for a lot of things. They help you relax and they can help you control your anxiety, so why not give them a go? To wet your whistle, here’s one of the breathing exercises from my previous article on the subject.
This 4-7-8 breathing exercise is pretty straightforward, much like the box breathing exercise. All you need to do is:
- Breathe in through your nose for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Breathe out through your mouth for eight seconds.
- Repeat this at least four times, or as necessary.
According to the APA, the release of the stress hormone cortisol can cause fat and sugar cravings, which would explain a lot.
*steps away from the chocolate bar*
This means that a more balanced lifestyle when it comes to food can protect our health while also allowing us to have a steady and reliable source of energy.
A lot of stress and anxiety can be avoided by practising reframing. Here are a few tips to help with that:
- Take note of the thoughts that are bothering you.
- See if there are other perspectives that can help.
- Challenge thinking errors.
- See if your expectations are unrealistic.
- Switch negative self-talk for positive self-talk (Vidhya, 2021).
I couldn’t end this section without talking about journaling. This is a great all-purpose self-care activity that can help you to deal with stress and anxiety through the use of journal prompts. You could just journal to offload your thoughts, or you could use it as part of a problem-solving activity.
Talk to your boss, talk to your family and friends, talk to a professional, or talk to someone online. It doesn’t matter who you talk to about it, but it’ll feel better to do so.
Just because stress and anxiety share a lot of criteria, that doesn’t make them the same thing. Excessive stress will lead to burnout, whereas excessive anxiety can be debilitating in its own way. Either way, both can seriously affect your quality of life. It’s fortunate that although these are separate beasts, what works for one can work for the other as you learn to tame them.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with stress and anxiety in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Daviu, N., Bruchas, M. R., Moghaddam, B., Sandi, C., & Beyeler, A. (2019). Neurobiological links between stress and anxiety. Neurobiology of stress, 11, 100191. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289519300438.
Selye, H. (1956). What is stress?. Metabolism, 5(5), 525-530. Retrieved from https://www.pacdeff.com/pdfs/What%20is%20Stress.pdf.
Vidhya, S. (2021). Grounding Techniques of Emotion Regulation for Teachers. Journal of Educational Research and Extension, 58(2), 20-23. Retrieved from https://www.srkvcoe.org/JERE/articles/Vol_58_Iss_2.pdf#page=26.