You have a deadline looming at work. You have Twitter open constantly because you’re afraid you might miss some breaking news. You check your bank account each night even when you know there hasn’t been any action. You’re late for an important appointment and you’re stuck in traffic. Any of these situations can cause our stress levels to skyrocket. But how do you know when what you’re feeling is stress or anxiety?
Although we often use the words “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably, there are some key differences between the two. The big difference between stress and anxiety is that stress is caused by an external trigger, such as work, while anxiety exists even when there is no stressor present.
In an ideal world, the duration of the stress response corresponds with its trigger: Once a stressor has been dealt with, the body can return to its natural baseline state, even though stress can be acute (such as a tight deadline) or chronic (persistent financial trouble).
Anxiety, unlike stress, is often triggered internally by excessive thoughts, such as continually ruminating on things from your past, excessively worrying about the future, or being overwhelmed by hypotheticals. In other words, there is no immediate external "danger," but our mind tells us that there is.
Stress can cause irritability, anger, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive troubles, and difficulty sleeping—and so can anxiety. And both stress and anxiety can escalate into more severe mental health conditions like anxiety disorders if we don’t get the support we deserve.
Stress and anxiety have a biological function, and like all biological functions, they promote our survival as a species. Our nervous system is a network that allows our bodies to take in sensory input and communicate with the rest of the system how to best respond. Specifically, our autonomic nervous system works to automatically react to important stimuli. It’s divided into two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is what is commonly known as “fight, flight, or freeze.” When there is danger in our environment, our senses quickly communicate to react by flooding the body with stress hormones, triggering a reaction to get to safety. Unfortunately, the SNS learns to get activated from less-than-life threatening experiences as well.
Fortunately, we are also wired with a remedy, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is commonly known as “rest and digest.” The PNS slows the heart rate, decreases blood pressure, and stimulates digestion to increase nutritional intake and create new energy reserves.
While this two-sided system is there to automatically help us react to potential danger and then restore itself, when we are plagued by stress, worry, and fear, our SNS starts to identify these thoughts as reality, triggering the SNS to overreact and frequently engage our body response in this heightened state.
Ultimately, over time, our thoughts can shape our reality, and create a response pattern where the nervous system (especially SNS) frequently overreacts, and our other systems are less empowered to step in and reality test our internal world against what is occurring externally, in real time.
Because stress is a reaction to an external trigger or stressor, that reaction might make more sense: I’m late, so I’m stressed; my partner and I got in an argument, so I’m stressed; I might not make rent this month, so I’m stressed. With anxiety, there might not be a clear and present danger (like a big meeting or an argument with a family member), but our minds and bodies act like there is; our SNS overreacts and we remain or more easily move into that heightened state and struggle to get out of it.
Therapy can help you learn to manage stress and anxiety by teaching you to make connections between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; use coping skills to reduce how much stress, anxiety, or insecurity you experience; recognize your physical signs of stress, such as tension, headaches, dizziness or lightheadedness, and nausea; reward yourself; radically accept yourself; gain or regain confidence in your abilities; set goals in an achievable and healthy way; and identify, reduce, and/or eliminate triggers that can intensify anxiety, like alcohol, drugs, caffeine and sugar, or misuse of prescription medications.
If your stress or anxiety does not respond to coping techniques you might try on your own, or if you feel that either stress or anxiety are affecting your day-to-day functioning or mood, consider talking to a mental health professional who can help you understand what you are experiencing and provide you additional coping tools. They can also help determine whether you may have an anxiety disorder, which is when anxiety persists for an extended period of time and negatively affects mood and functioning.
Some examples of anxiety disorders are:
If you feel this way, you’re not alone—bout 18% of U.S. adults and 25% of adolescents aged 13 to 18 will experience anxiety. About 4% of adults, and nearly 6% of teens, have anxiety disorders classified as severe.
Whether you’re feeling stress, experiencing anxiety, or living with an anxiety disorder, there are ways a therapist can help. Here are a few real, anonymized examples from actual therapists:
“A client presented with work stress,” said Jay Sandys. “Our initial focus was on her giving examples of what she likes about her job, and what issues she is facing, such as conflict with her supervisor, poor work/life balance, and not feeling attuned with the overall company mission. It soon became clear that alignment with mission was an important variable for this client to feel work satisfaction. We continued to explore career goals, and along with this exploration, other underlying issues became apparent, such as the client’s conflictual relationship with her parents and how this colored how she viewed other relationships."
“One client was dealing with stressful relationship issues that have been persistent throughout their life,” said Danashia Mclaughlin. “I took a psychodynamic approach by helping this client to recognize the patterns of behaviors that she has grown accustomed to throughout her life. By discussing her life and her childhood, the client and I were able to recognize consistencies that show themselves within her current relationship. Using motivational interviewing, I grew an understanding of where my client was and I instilled in her the strength that she needed to build autonomy within her life. Weekly, we made connections and rationalized our thinking to help the client learn through these experiences."
“One client suffered from anxiety, so we first talked about anxiety triggers – what makes you anxious?” says Jenna Sackman. “Then we explored if his anxiety (the effect) was proportionate to the trigger (the cause). We discussed that while we often cannot control the things that make us anxious, we can control our reaction to them, which, in turn, reduces the intensity and power that our anxiety has over us. However, doing so requires a level of awareness and consciousness that we often don’t utilize. In order to increase his awareness, we broke down the many ways that anxiety manifests itself physically – how does anxiety show itself in your body? – emotionally – how do you feel when you’re anxious? – and behaviorally – what do you do when you’re anxious? From there, we then discussed and practiced uniquely-tailored techniques to mitigate and reduce his reaction to and manifestation of anxiety. For him, we discovered that mindfulness, particularly doing a quick body scan when experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety, and daily meditation were helpful in reducing his anxiety.”
“A client expressed feeling excessive worries and wondered about ways to alleviate her symptoms (racing heart, difficulty breathing, and sweaty palms),” says Stephanie Rodriguez. “I began by providing psychoeducation about anxiety and followed by normalizing what she was experiencing by informing her that anxiety is common and is a response to a life situation. I then helped her explore how she can become more aware of her symptoms as they arise and suggested coping strategies that she might be able to try outside of therapy.”
“With a 10-year-old client with autism spectrum disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, therapy consisted of teaching coping skills and grounding techniques for anxiety attacks and behavioral outbursts, social skills for family and peer interactions, and developing self-awareness and the understanding of chains of events and the roles we play in them,” says Katherine Landis. “Through therapy, this client also learned to think more flexibly and build her self-esteem. She had been receiving services her entire life for ASD, including multiple therapists, but she and her mother both reported that I was the first therapist who specifically treated her anxiety and taught her to love and embrace her autistic identity."
Though therapy can change the trajectory of your life, it also often takes time. Sometimes, in the midst of an anxiety attack, you crave relief as soon as possible just to survive to the next moment. Sometimes, you need a tool (or two, or three), to ground yourself enough to be able to engage in a growth process like therapy. Here are a few ways to cope right now:
It is easier to develop new skills to manage stress and anxiety when you have support. Therapy can provide that additional support and an environment where you can learn what tools might work best for you. Regardless of whether you experience stress, anxiety, or both, you deserve to feel cared for and supported so you can cope and get the most out of life.
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Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.