Stress vs. Anxiety: Unraveling the Differences and Finding Balance 

Do you ever find yourself feeling overwhelmed, your mind racing with worries and your body tense with unease? Is it stress, anxiety, or a confusing mix of both?  

In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to get entangled in the web of stress and anxiety. But have you ever wondered what sets them apart? More importantly, what can you do to manage stress and/or anxiety in your own life or in the life of someone you love? 

Defining Stress and Its Impact 

Stress is an inevitable part of life. It arises in response to external pressures or demands, ranging from work deadlines to personal obligations. When we encounter stress, our bodies release hormones like cortisol, preparing us for the “fight or flight” response.  

Stress is our body’s natural response to external pressures or demands. It’s the rush of adrenaline when a deadline is looming or the heightened alertness when faced with a challenging situation. Think of stress as a temporary state, a reaction to specific stressors that can be resolved or removed.  

Consider the graph below. With too little pressure or stress, we are left feeling bored. With moderate stress, our performance increases. While a moderate amount of stress can be motivating, excessive or prolonged stress can take a toll on our physical and mental well-being and decrease our performance. 

Graph of stress versus performance

Picture from https://delphis.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Delphis-Pressure-Performance-Stress-Curve.png 

Understanding Anxiety and Its Characteristics 

Now, let’s shift our focus to anxiety—an emotion that often lingers even when the stressors vanish. Unlike stress, anxiety isn’t necessarily tied to a particular situation. Anxiety is much more pervasive in that way. With generalized anxiety comes a persistent feeling of unease, worry, or fear that lingers in our minds and bodies. With social anxiety, the worries are tied to situations involving other people. Anxiety tends to be more generalized, affecting various aspects of our lives, and can sometimes even appear without an identifiable cause. 

Anxiety can lead to a range of symptoms, including restlessness, racing thoughts, excessive worrying, difficulty concentrating (learn more about the difference between anxiety and ADHD here) and physical manifestations like increased heart rate and difficulty sleeping. These symptoms may vary in intensity and the focus of the anxiety may be different (learn more about anxiety in children and adolescents here), but anxiety is by definition disruptive to the person in their daily life.  

Think of it like a smoke alarm. A smoke alarm is meant to alert us of something dangerous. While everyone has a smoke alarm, those with anxiety have an overactive smoke alarm that goes off even when there are no fires. Their brains tell them to avoid doing something to avoid a fire that is not really there.  

Anxiety is time-consuming, exhausting, and keeps that person from experiencing life. If believed, a person’s overactive smoke alarm will make their life smaller and smaller.  

Differentiating Factors: Duration, Intensity, and Focus 

Duration: One key factor that sets stress and anxiety apart is their duration. Stress tends to be short-term, dissipating once the stressor is resolved. On the other hand, anxiety can be long-lasting, lingering for extended periods, sometimes without an identifiable cause.  

Intensity: Stress typically manifests as pressure, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Anxiety, however, brings forth more intense and persistent feelings of fear, restlessness, racing thoughts, and physical symptoms like increased heart rate and disrupted sleep. 

Focus: Stress is usually centered around specific stressors and their immediate impact, whereas anxiety can be more diffuse, encompassing worries about various aspects of life and potential future threats. Stress is typically triggered by external pressures or demands, whereas anxiety may persist even in the absence of an immediate stressor. 

Finding Balance: Managing Stress and Anxiety 

While stress and anxiety can be challenging, there are things you can do to better manage both. 

1. Recognize and acknowledge your emotions: Self-awareness is key. Understand whether you’re experiencing stress or anxiety and identify the triggers, thoughts, or situations contributing to your emotional state. If you want to learn about helping your child recognize their emotions, I recommend reading The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel.

2. Practice relaxation techniques: Deep breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness can help calm the mind and body, reducing both stress and anxiety. Mindfulness just meets being completely in the present moment which is the antidote to worrying about what is to come. Try making it part of your daily routine for best results.

3. Prioritize self-care: Engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as hobbies, exercise, spending time with loved ones, or practicing self-reflection. If you need ideas for research-based activities to bring you joy, check out UC Berkeley’s website, Greater Good In Action.

4. Establish healthy boundaries: Learn to say no when necessary and set limits on your commitments to prevent overwhelm and reduce stress. If you want to learn more about setting boundaries, I recommend reading Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab. My other favorite book about setting limits on commitments is Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

5. Seek support: Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends, family, or professionals who can provide guidance and support during challenging times. 

Conclusion

By now, you should have a clearer understanding of the distinctions between stress and anxiety. While stress is a temporary response to specific stressors, anxiety often persists, affecting various aspects of our lives. Both can be managed effectively through self-care, stress reduction techniques, and seeking support when needed. 

Remember, we all experience stress and anxiety differently, so be patient and kind to yourself as you navigate these emotions. Incorporate the strategies that resonate with you, and don’t hesitate to seek professional help if your stress or anxiety becomes overwhelming. 

I hope this article has shed some light on stress and anxiety, empowering you to take proactive steps towards better mental well-being. Until next time, take care and be gentle with yourself.