Everybody feels stress sometimes. If you’re in school, in the workplace, at home, in relationships… at some point you will experience stress, and it is normal. But how do we know when we have crossed a line from regular day-to-day stress into something more like clinical anxiety?
Stress, nervousness, and anxiety are pretty similar and often run together, sometimes making it pretty difficult to untangle the definitions and differentiate between the feelings. In the next few paragraphs, we’re going to take a brief and broad-strokes look at the differences between stress and anxiety and how to recognize them in yourself.
So, What Is Stress? What’s Anxiety?
Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or extremely demanding circumstances. “Mental or emotional strain” – you probably know the feeling. Studying for a big test, struggling to meet a deadline, having too many things on your plate, trying to mediate a friends’ argument. Those kinds of situations can cause a natural and probably realistic stress reaction. You are dealing with a lot or something that feels overwhelming.
Anxiety can feel similar to or even the same as stress. It’s that feeling of unease, worry, or nervousness; it can feel like a knot in your gut or a churning in your stomach. Some people feel shaky or lightheaded, and for some it’s like a whirlwind of racing thoughts. Anxiety, stress, and nervousness can all feel similar, cognitively and physically; anxiety can even start with stress or nerves. But there are a couple of things, I think, that are distinct to each that might help us separate them out.
How To Spot The Difference
A crucial part of the definition of stress is that it is strain or tension “resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. Stress is circumstantial, dependent on situations around you. Anxiety, on the other hand, is not. Anxiety might have a discernible cause, but it might not. It might get worse or better in certain situations, or it might not. If it does, it might not follow logical expectations. For instance, it might get worse in social situations or walking across the street, neither of which would generally be considered an adverse circumstance.
Another difference is that stress is usually at least somewhat realistic. You do have a deadline, or your parents are fighting a lot. Anxiety might be realistic, but it might feel completely unreasonable. Anxiety is often future-oriented, worrying about something that may or may not happen, whereas stress is generally about something that is happening or is about to happen.
Stress is also temporary, and I think this is one of the biggest distinguishers. As stress is situation-dependent, when that situation is over, the stress typically is too. If stress symptoms are hanging around longer than usual or long after the stress-inducing event has resolved, the stress may have morphed into a longer-lasting anxiety. Anxiety is not always tied to something specific, so it can be a consistent, underlying feeling of worry that doesn’t resolve.
How To Respond To Both
When determining whether these feelings sound more like stress or anxiety, you can look at how it is impacting your daily life. If you experience some nervousness before a big presentation at work but you are able to present just fine and then continue on about your day, that sounds more like nerves (again, temporary). But if you are feeling that nervousness in such a way that it is affecting your functioning day-to-day, like you can’t sleep or you have to call in sick to miss the meeting, it is sounding more like anxiety. Anxiety can range in severity, so maybe you end up quitting your job to avoid the presentations, or maybe you experience physical symptoms (stomach pain, shortness of breath, tightness in chest) and duck out to the bathroom before or after to give yourself some space. Either way, if it is impacting your daily life, that is a clue that this could be more than just stress.
If you are interested in learning more about what anxiety looks and feels like, or if you are concerned that you or someone you care about is experiencing anxiety, please give us a call or send us an email. We would love to explore it with you.
Written by therapist Clair Miller
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