Anxiety vs. Stress: How to Tell the Difference and Get the Help You Need

May 23, 2019

By Zachary Isoma, PsyD

A couple of weeks ago, I wanted to quit everything. I was supposed to be writing reports, finishing progress notes, calling clients back, preparing presentations, and drafting blog posts like this one. But I was struggling to keep up with everything, and falling more and more behind by the day. And just when I thought I was at my limit, a huge, unexpected bill came crashing down.

I fell face-first on my bed and didn’t move for hours. It was like a huge anchor was weighing my whole body down. I started to become consumed by “what if” worries: What if I don’t get my reports done on time? What if I can’t pay the bills? What if my clients stop showing up? And even, what if we become homeless?!

I was stressed…or was I anxious…or maybe both. It’s hard to know — we use these words so interchangeably that they can seem synonymous. But knowing the difference could mean knowing how to best cope with these all-too-common yet difficult experiences. So, what are we talking about when we say we’re experiencing stress or anxiety? It turns out, there are some important distinguishing factors.

Understanding Stress

When I wanted to quit everything, it was because there was so much on my plate at once. Earlier, I mentioned some issues I was facing that are common in starting a private practice. What I didn’t mention is that my wife is pregnant with our first child and we’re desperate to learn as much as we can about becoming parents.

I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of things happening in my life. These “things” are what I would consider stressors. A stressor is any circumstance or event that causes feelings of tension, strain, and mental anguish. Think about the house chores that still need to get done, the last fight you had with someone you love, or that work project you’re procrastinating on. Each event is considered a stressor to the extent that it evokes feelings of stress.

How do we define stress?

One way is to frame it in terms of our fight-or-flight response. Our adrenal glands pump out hormones that prepare our bodies to deal with a perceived threat in the environment. This is when you can feel your heart pounding faster, your body temperature rise, and your muscles tense up.  

While this response can be useful when we need to respond to a stressor, too much stress can overwhelm our psychological and physical well-being. If our bodies are frequently in hyperdrive, we may be at greater risk for headaches, gastrointestinal issues, muscle pain, hypertension, and even heart attacks. Stress can also negatively affect sleeping and eating patterns, focus and attention, and productivity.

One defining feature of stress that separates it from anxiety is its dependence on stressors. Once the underlying stressor is relieved, so is the stress. For example, you’ll likely feel the pressure of stress rise as a huge work deadline approaches, then peak the day before the due date, and immediately fall once you meet the deadline.

How is that different from anxiety?

We’ve all been in stressful situations before and can identify stress when we feel it. The hallmark signs are physical feelings of tension and psychological overwhelm or distress. Stress usually goes away once the identified stressor does. Anxiety, on the other hand, tends to stick around.

Anxiety is a general feeling of nervousness or unease, even in the absence of an identifiable stressor.

Like stress, anxiety is a very common experience. Anybody with a newborn knows the constant feeling of concern for their baby’s safety, even when you just checked on the baby moments before. Most of us can also identify with fears about the future, our health, and the welfare of our family.

Notice that the hallmark of anxiety is worry and fear. Our minds are built to predict and forecast potential dangers in order to ensure our safety, even if there aren’t any dangers present. This is what makes being human a unique blessing and curse. Predicting potential threats allows us to plan ahead and solve problems before they happen.

But if prediction is a superpower, rigidly responding to every prediction is our kryptonite. We can end up spending more time either suppressing or giving in to our worries than pursuing our life goals. Procrastinating on this blog might temporarily relieve my worry about it being good enough (until the deadline hits), but it does nothing for my professional goals. If I keep waking up my newborn because I’m afraid he’s not breathing, he might never find a healthy sleeping pattern.

So, to recap: stress is the body’s natural response to stressful situations and usually lessens once the stressful situation ends. Anxiety is the mind’s tendency to create potential stressful situations, even when there isn’t one. Stress and anxiety often occur together, which makes it even harder to differentiate between the two. When you experience a lot of stress for a prolonged period of time, there is an increased risk of developing anxiety. If there are tons of stressors that keep piling up, your mind tends to be on the lookout for more of them. And when you have anxiety, everything feels much more stressful.

When to Get Help

I touched on how stress and anxiety are useful and adaptive responses to ensure our survival and help us flourish, but it bears repeating. Stress is a normal response to everyday, difficult situations and events. Way back in the Stone Age, stress served the purpose of energizing us so we could run away from danger and toward food, water, and shelter (fight or flight). Anxiety serves a similar purpose and is equally as normal, but a bit more advanced. Remember, the hallmark of anxiety is worry, and worry provides us the ability to predict what might go wrong. Predicting what might go wrong helps us prevent mistakes and pitfalls.

Stress and anxiety in and of themselves are not necessarily problems and can even be helpful. However, over-responding to these worries instead of paying attention to our moment-to-moment experiences can lead to debilitating mental health disorders.

Statistics indicate that anxiety disorders occur in nearly 1 in 5 people in a given year and are the most diagnosed mental health condition in the U.S. For some people, worries overtake their entire day and interfere with their ability to work, socialize with others, or even leave the house.

When to seek out help for anxiety is a very personal decision. As a psychologist, I have a bias toward getting help early, even when the stress or anxiety I’m experiencing isn’t debilitating. I know that going to therapy for everyday worries and stressors can help build resiliency when life gets really hard.

Considering therapy becomes even more crucial when stress or anxiety is interfering with your ability to function well in some area of your life. For example, are you so worried about your work performance that you’re calling in sick? Do you cancel plans with friends to avoid social contact? Maybe you’re having a hard time sleeping, eating, and focusing on everyday life because you’re overwhelmed with stress.

Quality therapy is about developing better coping strategies so you can handle overwhelming thoughts and feelings without them overtaking you. Therapists help you confront stressors, view your thoughts from a different perspective, and move toward doing what matters most in your life. Whether you’re experiencing stress, anxiety or both, keep in mind that going to therapy should be based on need and desire, not stigma. To be human is to experience stress and anxiety, and it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to not be okay.

CONTACT US

If you want help with stress or anxiety, Lyra can connect you to a behavioral health solution that is right for your needs. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zachary Isoma, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist and co-owner of Harbor Psychology, serving the Greater Tampa Bay area. He specializes in practicing acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) with men who struggle with anxiety and have difficulties expressing their thoughts and feelings. He is the founder of the Tampa Bay ACT peer consultation group and provides trainings, workshops, and seminars on ACT to students and professionals.