What Is The Difference Between Stress And Anxiety?May 31, 2021
I have encountered this question quite frequently across the support groups and platforms I participate in. And it seems a reasonable question, right? Most people have experienced both stress and anxiety. And in many ways they feel the same. But how do we know if what we have is stress (and potentially burn out) vs. anxiety? What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
What Is Stress?
Stress is a little more complex than you might imagine. We have good stress (knows as eustress) and we have bad stress (also knows as distress).
The good stress helps us thrive and function optimally. The bad stress puts us back – emotionally, physically and mentally.
Having good stress sounds a little counterintuitive, right? Well the thing is that most of us actually thrive with a good amount of healthy stress. This is the kind of stress you experience when you are in a state of “flow“.
Have you ever been “in the flow”? The flow happens when you are given a challenge that stretches you a bit. it might mean having to learn a new skill or up-levelling your game somehow. It feels exciting, though. And the reason it is exciting is because you also believe that you have what it takes to rise up to this challenge.
In other words you have the resources, the finances, the time (whatever you believe you need) to be able to meet the challenge.
This is eustress. It feels good and you feel on top of it.
However… Sometimes we are handed a challenge that goes beyond what we believe we are capable of. Or it requires more time than we have available. Perhaps it is more expensive than we can afford.
Whatever the circumstances – we believe that we are unable to meet the challenge. It requires too much of us. And as a result we start to experience distress (bad stress). The distress, if prolonged, can affect us physically in the form of tension, headaches, increased blood pressure and more serious conditions. But it also affects us mentally resulting in mental fatigue, irritability, feeling distracted and “stressed out”.
In many ways bad stress feels similar to bouts of anxiety.
What Is Anxiety?
You have heard me say it before…
Anxiety is a normal, natural human response. It is the brains mechanism to tell you to pay attention.
Think of the last time you were in a potentially dangerous situation – that initial alert and response – that was anxiety. It tells you to that something important is happening and you need to pay attention.
Usually, we pay attention and allow our limbic system (emotional brain) to decide whether there is, in fact, a threat or not. And if there isn’t, then we relax. If there is… Then it is all fight or flight.
Let’s be clear. Anxiety is not the fight of flight response. Anxiety is the bit that comes before the fight or flight response.
However… the brain can get muddled and misinterpret threats – thereby triggering an adrenaline response. The adrenaline response (increased heart rate, blood pressure, rapid breathing etc) can feel uncomfortable and cause more anxiety. Now the brain is telling you to pay attention to these new physical symptoms, which makes the anxiety worse and could create a vicious cycle.
“Normal” Anxiety vs. Anxiety “Disorder”
So experiencing anxiety is a normal response. We need it to keep us safe and alert to potential problems and threats.
When anxiety becomes stuck, it becomes debilitating and this is when “disorders” are diagnosed. Personally, I prefer to think of anxiety becoming stuck rather than disordered.
Stuck anxiety is a brain that cannot let it go.
It keeps wanting you to pay attention, believing there is a problem that you haven’t quite solved. The thoughts associated with anxiety that is stuck often start with “what if” and are concerned with the future, or a problem in the past. Never in the present.
The worrying thoughts and beliefs that something is wrong continue to perpetuate the anxiety, which triggers the fight or flight response and makes the anxiety increase. This is a stuck cycle.
What Is The Difference Between Stress And Anxiety?
So I guess the big difference here is that stress is concerned with the present and has to do with whether or not you believe you have the resources and capabilities needed to meet the present challenge.
When you do not feel like you are able to rise to the challenge, you begin to feel “stretched thin”. (In some instances the fear of failing may create anxiety because the potential ‘failure’ becomes threatening). So while stress is closely related to anxiety it is more concerned with the now.
Anxiety, however, is rarely based in the present.
“Normal” anxiety is often triggered in the present moment in response to a current experience. But that very quickly turns to a fight or flight response (if you need to take action) or subsides (when it is clear there isn’t actually a threat).
Stuck anxiety, however, tends to be based in some potential future occurrence. It is worrying about what might happen in the future. This sort of anxiety starts to pre-empt negative outcomes and then want you to try solve the potential problems. And the cycle is based on perpetual thoughts, worries and concerns about the future.
Identifying Stress vs. Anxiety
One of the biggest identifiers is that stress is more often based in a reality of some sort. There is a clear deficiency in time, finances, skills or supports. It is noticeable and easily identified.
Conversely, stuck anxiety tends to be based largely in our beliefs about potential outcomes. It tends to skew reality somewhat and feel a little irrational. That it is irrational does not undermine the experience. Stuck anxiety does not have to make sense to feel real.
So, in a nutshell, we have both good and bad types of stress. In the same way we have both ‘normal’ and stuck anxiety.
We need both good stress and normal anxiety in order to thrive. It’s the bad and stuck kinds that we need to avoid.
The biggest differences between the two is that stress tends to be based on perceptions about the present situation, while anxiety tends to focus on the future.
So when you’re dealing with (dis)stress then you need to be looking at how to reduce the current challenge or increase the availability of resources, supports or skills. That normally sorts out the (dis)stress.
When dealing with stuck anxiety – we really want to be interrupting the vicious cycles of anxiety about anxiety and refocus the brain on the present moment. Getting some rational perspective often helps, and eradicating those “what if” questions that tend to perpetuate the cycle.
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