Stress or Anxiety - What's the Difference?

In today's busy modern world it is not uncommon to hear someone exclaim loudly, "Ugh, I'm so stressed!" or "Quit doing XYZ, you're making me anxious!".  The terms stress and anxiety are often thrown about and used interchangeably, and for good reason: we are a stressed out an anxious group of people! 

The vast majority of Americans (~75% according to the American Institute of Stress) experience physical and/or psychological symptoms from stress.  And according to the Anxiety and Depression Assoc. of America, anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness, affecting 18% of Americans, or about 40 million people every year - and that's just in this country!

Who is Safe?

With statistics like these, it seems like most people will be affected by one or the other at some point.  So who is safe?  To answer that question, I offer one of my favorite quotes from Jack Kornfield, from his book A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times: 

If you can sit quietly after difficult news;
if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm;
if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy;
if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;
if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;
if you can always find contentment just where you are: are probably a dog.

So, if you are a dog, you can stop reading now, because you've probably got this whole stress and anxiety business under control.  Case in point, my dog is laying on the floor right now soaking up the sun and worrying about absolutely nothing in the world.

But if you, like me, suffer from the unfortunate disposition of being human, then read on...

How Stress and Anxiety Are Similar

Many of the symptoms of stress and anxiety are very similar, making it easy to confuse the two.  People who are stressed and/or anxious will often experience headaches, an increased heart rate, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, trouble focusing, digestive issues and many other similar symptoms.  With this many symptoms overlapping, it is often hard to tell them apart.

So What's the Difference?

The Cliffs Notes version, according to the Anxiety and Depression Assoc. of America, is that stress is a response to a threat, and anxiety is a reaction to the stress.  But it's a little more complicated than that.  

Where Does Stress Come From?

Stress is a response to an external stressor, like your car breaking down, an approaching deadline at work, or that ferociously rabid raccoon running at you in broad daylight in the grocery store parking lot.  When we are confronted with an external stressor, our body kicks off a series of steps, called our stress response, to help us face that danger.  Which, in this case, would entail a bunch of adrenaline being dumped into your system and blood being pumped rapidly to your arms and legs so that you can flee from the wild-eyed raccoon.  

In situations like this, your stress response is actually helpful.  It allows you to dodge the raccoon, call animal control, and escape to the relative safety of your car where you can quietly munch on those cookies you just  bought while you wait for animal control to come fetch the wily beast.  Once the external stressor is removed, your stress response and associated symptoms should subside.  

Where Does Anxiety Come From?

Anxiety, on the other hand, doesn't disappear once the problem is dispatched.  The root of anxiety is a sense of fear, worry or unease (according the UK National Health Service), and it is often disproportionate to the external stressor.  Anxiety is often triggered by stress, but it continues on long after the stressor is removed.   Whereas we know what the source of our stress is, the source of anxiety often seems unclear because it is either delayed/separated from the original stressor, or such a disproportionate reaction that we dismiss it as having anything to do with what's happening in our external world.  

Why does the difference matter? 

You might think I'm just being the grammar police here and hunting you down to give you an annoying ticket for doing the grammatical equivalent of staying 5 minutes past your parking meter.  But the difference between stress and anxiety actually matters because the ways to work with and relieve them can be very different.  

Different Causes, Different Solutions

If stress is your primary issue, than the fastest path to resolving the symptoms of stress might be to tackle the stressor head on.  In this case, you already called animal control, good for you.  Once they come pick up Rocky, then your stress should quickly abate.  Problem solved.  

If the source of your stress is more chronic than a one-time incident with a raccoon at the grocery store, then some of the tips below for anxiety might help you navigate things and reduce your stress response until you can deal with the situation.  

If your symptoms are the result of anxiety, then taking a vacation or break from the external stressors won't do you a lot of good, because the anxiety will follow you wherever you go.  In this case, you will continue to experience symptoms of anxiety long after animal control rescues you from the raccoon.  You may have trouble sleeping at night.  You may start to feel a sense of impending doom whenever you leave the house.  Or next time you go to the grocery store you may even experience a panic attack (these are a sure-fire indication that anxiety is at play).  

A Path to Relief

If you are experiencing stress, then some stress management and life-balance techniques might be a good place to start: get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise regularly, and limit your caffeine and alcohol intake (both will exacerbate effects of stress).  I offer a Stress Management group that teaches mindfulness and nature-based techniques for coping with prolonged stress that can't be easily dispatched.  

If, after reading the above, you feel like anxiety might be closer to the mark for you, then individual counseling can help you learn mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques for reducing your anxiety.  I also find that many of the nature-based practices I use with clients have a profound impact on their anxiety levels.  

Whatever your need, if some additional support with relieving your stress or anxiety would be helpful, fill out the form below to apply for a free 30 minute consult.  I'd be happy to talk with you and map out your path to relief.  


For more information about how individual therapy can help to relieve your anxiety symptoms, visit the Anxiety Treatment page.