The Real Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

—Ally Laudon, Staff Writer—

4photoStress and anxiety: very different in a psychological sense, yet connected to an extent with similar physical reactions. Stress and anxiety are oftentimes mischaracterized as being the same. Many individuals will have feelings of distress when it comes to school, work, abuse, or personal situations.

Feelings of distress in these situations can be identified as stress; however, many people will use anxiety as a synonym. Is this such a big deal? It may not matter to many people, but some individuals suffer from different types of anxiety disorders and the distinction can be important.

Acute stress is the most common form of stress that every person feels. This type of stress forces  the human body to experience a fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic 1photonervous system. An example of a situation that can cause acute stress is narrowly dodging falling down the stairs while holding a very expensive vase. The moment of panic, accelerated heart rate, and rapid breathing are instant and persist as the individual recovers from the situation and accepts that the situation is over and resolved and resumes normal daily functions. These moments of acute stress are usually minimal and can even be laughed about later; some are even intentional like when someone jumps around a corner to get a reaction out of someone else.

2photoChronic stress is characterized as an everyday stress that doesn’t instantly feel resolved. Frustration in an undesirable job circumstance, disease or illness, or abuse are the biggest contributors to chronic stress. This type of stress is usually the body reacting in a fight-or-flight response for a long period of time. Chronic stress is also restricting of a person’s ability to improve their quality of life if they’re constantly worried about whether they will keep their positions and be successful or if their project or situation could end in failure. This worry is typical in situations with repeated strict deadlines, harsh competitiveness, or shortened amounts of time to accomplish tasks. Chronic stress is also relatively prevalent in high school students, Cosby High School senior Christine Dunstan says, “I think I do stress out about a lot of issues everyday, and it is mostly all school related.” Chronic stress produces a chemical called catecholamines in a large quantities and becomes a neurotransmitter that can lead to depression, anxiety, mood swings, and irritability. Although, chronic stress can lead to anxiety, it is not the same as anxiety and is still characterized as stress, as it has a distinct cause.

Traumatic stress is caused by a life-threatening event or a situation that provoked an intense feeling of fear. Examples could be a war, car accident, or natural disaster. However, post-traumatic-stress disorder can be diagnosed.

5photoThe biggest difference between stress and anxiety is that stress has a tangible cause and is about a situation that is actually happening or going to happen, whereas anxiety is intense feelings of fight-or-flight accompanied by rapid breathing, shaking, and a fast heart rate in reaction to a hypothetical situation or an cause unknown even to the individual. When asked if she had seen anyone have a panic attack, Dunstan says, “I have many times and have seen it happen to different people. The cause was usually from built up fear. I usually do not know the exact cause and with anxiety there isn’t always a reason.” Anxiety is mostly associated with anxiety disorders; however, individuals can experience moments of anxiety brought on by stress.

Anxiety disorders are characterized by insomnia, intense moments of frustration with others, and moodiness. Exhaustion is a frequent symptom of anxiety disorders due to a person’s inability to sleep, and the moments of panic where the body reacts by trembling, and an accelerated heart rate causing stress to the body. Most anxietys stem from a previous fright, phobia, or experience that the individual had encountered before. Anxiety can arise in people that don’t have anxiety disorders if they feel as if they aren’t good at a particular activity, or feel as if they don’t meet a certain set of expectations in appearance or performance.

Anxiety disorders are usually diagnosed when an individual is constantly finding it hard to cope with stresses that aren’t yet a reality, and make it difficult to participate in daily life. 3photoThere are a few types of anxiety including generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety, panic disorders, and phobias.

Generalized anxiety is almost always coupled with depression and has to have been present in a person’s life for at least 6 months for a diagnosis. Obsessive compulsive disorder is a disorder that makes an individual have repeated thoughts that cause anxiety and handle it by having certain rituals and tendencies. Social anxiety, most common in young women, affects the way one would interact with others, as they feel the need to avoid situations where they could possibly be the center of attention, judged by others, or encounter people they don’t know. Panic disorders are sudden attacks of anxiety that result in the entire body reacting by sweating, rapid heart beats, and shaking. This disorder may make an individual believe they’re having a heart attack. A phobia is an extreme fear and cause of anxiety due to a particular situation or object. Examples of phobias include a fear of a particular animal or using an elevator.

Anxiety disorders can be treated. However, many individuals will not get help and go to a doctor either from fear of the doctor itself or a sense of shame that comes with this impairment. Anxiety can be treated with medication, therapy, or meditation.

Distinguishing the difference between stress and anxiety is important because it can be necessary to know if one is stressed or suffering from anxiety. Having the symptoms of stress identified can easily help an individual to change patterns in their lives that will diminish some of the impending stresses. Also, knowing what stress is and its effects is helpful to identify what is causing the stress. Knowing the symptoms of anxiety is helpful because an individual may be unable to cope and in danger of major depression which would affect the quality of their life.

As always, please consult your doctor if you believe you suffer from any of these conditions.

Photos Courtesy of Britt-Knee, Erik F. Brandsborg, R N, and TraumaAndDissociation