Anxiety vs Stress
Updated: May 19, 2020
Very often the terms “stress” and “anxiety” are used interchangeably and we generally understand them to have the same meanings in our everyday language. However the truth of the matter is that Stress and Anxiety are in fact not the same and we need to understand the differences before we attempt to deal with them.
Stress is a normal reaction to a situation that is perceived to be challenging or poses a threat or even opportunities. The important factor here is that stress is our own personal reaction to an event rather than the event itself which causes the stress.
Good and Bad Stress
Stress is not always a bad thing in our lives. Good stress (known as Eustress) occurs when our level of stress is high enough to motivate us in order to engage with a challenge and to achieve our goals. Essentially this stress helps us rise to the challenge and to perform at our best. When this eustress becomes too great though, we start to enter into the bad stress known as Distress. This negative stress occurs when our levels of stress are either too high, or too low and our mind and body begin to respond negatively to the stressors. These reactions could include demotivation, feeling overwhelmed, getting sick, reaching “burn-out” etc.
Anxiety on the other hand is a feeling of fear, unease or worry, often related to situations that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable. Anxiety is a future-oriented mood in which a person anticipates an attempt (normally viewed as being unsuccessful) to cope or manage the upcoming negative event. Anxiety is therefore prolonged stress that continues after the stressor is gone and becomes future-orientated towards another upcoming event. In comparison, stress is caused by an immediate, existing stress causing factor.
Normal, abnormal and “normal”
Stress is a normal part of our every day life, we cannot avoid it and it plays an important role in motivating us to achieve goals and in general getting through each day safely. Normal stress is related to our survival as we experience some degree of stress whenever our body perceives a threat. This could be from another person or event outside of ourselves which we find threatening (robbery, fights, getting in trouble), or even simply being hungry or thirsty. The normal stress that we experience can cause us to enter into out fight/flight/freeze response to a situation, which may stem from a physical, emotional or environmental threat.
Abnormal stress begins to rear it’s head when our normal stress comes prolonged. When this stress continues after the immediate threat or cause has been dealt with we enter into the realm of anxiety as we become worried or fearful of future events. These fears can further develop into even greater irrational fears which then become our phobias and become less and less controllable. As this anxiety continues it will likely begin to interfere in our daily lives or activities, and as this continues it is possibly and quite likely that we can adopt a negative outlook on life or situations. A “doomsday’ outlook can be the beginnings of the commonly associated depression.
We often perceive our stress or anxiety to be “normal” because we have experienced it that way for so
long. Our familiarity with worries, fears and anxiety does not make it normal. It only makes it regular and common for ourselves. It is important to remember that expressions such as “it’s just the way I am” or “it’s the way it always is” or even “this is just how I work” are not good enough justifications to try and normalise your anxiety levels. Furthermore, as we “normalise” our anxiety we begin to normalise it for our immediate support group (family) too and thus all members will begin to accept these levels of stress, worry and anxiety as “normal”.
Where anxiety comes from
There is generally much debate around the role of nature vs nurture in our development. The important aspect to keep in mind is that both nature and nurture play crucial roles in our development and the individuals that we will or have developed into.