Often used interchangeable, and sharing symptoms and triggers, stress and anxiety nevertheless are quite different things. Yes, both can be triggered by outside factors such as deadlines, financial difficulties and oversized workloads. And yes they do also share symptoms such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, changes in eating habits and headaches among many more.
But knowing which of these all-too-common issues you are dealing with is essential in tackling them. Not to mention that labeling stress as anxiety leads to erasure of the very real struggle of those who deal with actual anxiety disorders.
Here are three key differences between stress and anxiety, to help you lead a more peaceful life.
Stress will almost always disappear after the stressful situation/issues is resolved. Anxiety lingers.
You may be stressed about a particularly difficult exam or pressure may be mounting at work to meet a fast-approaching deadline. You might be stressed about the holidays, meeting a new person, or family visiting.
It may cause you plenty of sleepless nights, or you may find yourself having trouble focusing on anything unrelated to the event you are stressed about. You might even struggle to focus on resolving the issue at hand as well. But once the event has passed, stress related to it will significantly diminish, and within a few days at most it will be fully gone.
Anxiety however is rather more insidious.
The deadline may have long gone, but you can still find yourself having anxious feeling and moods, worrying about how you could have done better, or handled things differently. In fact, there doesn’t need to be an outside stressor to bring anxiety on. Family and personal life, as well as work and friend commitments could all be going great, and yet you’re still constantly worried, jumpy, can’t sleep and feel your heart go all over the place.
Stress can be beneficial. Anxiety never is.
Stress is basically an evolutionary response to danger. Stress releases a bounty of hormones into our bodies that trigger your heart to beat faster, your muscles to tense and blood flow to increase among many other symptoms, meant to aid the flight or fight response when facing danger or a predator.
This in itself can actually be beneficial if you are mindful of how you view, treat and manage stress. Of course, prolonged stress can bring on or worsen health issues, from gastrointestinal problems to addiction.
Anxiety is not a response to danger, nor is it an evolutionary defence mechanism. It is in fact the most mental health disorder, affecting close to 1 in 5 people in the U.S. alone. When diagnosing anxiety disorder, one of the most common benchmarks is to see if a person has dealt with worry and anxiety more days than not in the last 6 months. Anxiety affects one’s quality of life, and despite what many internet “health gurus” say, drinking enough water or meditating does not make it go away.
Stress can be eliminated with lifestyle changes. Anxiety requires more.
If occasional stress in your life has morphed into prolonged stress, lifestyle changes such as setting clear boundaries between work and personal life, decreasing workload, focusing more and lived experiences rather than financial rewards gained from working too much can help. Exercise and better eating habits also help.
While all of these can also aid in relieving anxiety symptoms, they do not eliminate the source of the problem — they will only put a band-aid on symptoms. Successfully tackling anxiety requires professional help. Therapy is considered the benchmark for treatment of anxiety and in many cases some form of medication may also be implemented.