10 key steps towards differentiating stress and anxiety and how to deal with them
Many people confuse stress with anxiety and vice versa. At first glance there are many similarities, so this confusion is not unusual. In this post we are going to discuss these differences and how to fight them both.
In this modern world, it is impossible to avoid stress. Many people have two jobs, kids who want everything, the mortgage payment, monthly car payment and now to top it off we have a financial crisis. For many, the security of a steady job is a thing of the past.
Also the concept of time has changed, we are totally dominated by the clock and as a result we feel that stress is everywhere and affects us all. So what are the differences between these two situations?
5 steps towards understanding stress
1. Animal instinct
As we mentioned in the previous post, we are still animals despite our social sophistication. Humans have created civilised societies with social structures and laws, but there are still remnants of our animal instincts.
When we feel threatened, we subconsciously, almost instinctively, feel that we need more energy to get to stay and fight the danger or run away quickly. These chemicals components the body produces have side effects. They make us feel anxious and uncomfortable.
The problem is that our brains interpret the situation of being stuck in traffic as a threat, thus resulting in a biochemical reaction that produces stress. Besides being uncomfortable, we get cranky and can even suffer adverse conditions for the body as excessive breathing and tachycardia.
2. Endogenous origin
Stimuli for stress have their origins from within the body (it is endogenous) or if it is the result of our perception of an event, outside the body, it is said to have an exogenous origin.
Let’s have a look at an example of an endogenous stress stimulus: imagine we’re a little sick, with a headache and we automatically think the worst. This thought begins to obsess us and we convince ourselves that we have a brain tumour.
3. Exogenous stimuli
An example of an exogenous source can be, for example when you have to give a speech in public. It can be a lecture at work or a speech at a relative’s wedding. You probably think you’re going to fail and you make a fool of yourself in front of your friends and colleagues. The day is approaching and you become an increasingly nervous and unbearable person due to stress.
4. Back to normal
The advantage of stress over anxiety (if you can call it that) is that, once the perceived danger is gone, the body returns to normal.
Going back to the previous examples, in the first one we were concerned about a headache but once you go to the doctor and he tells us that everything is fine, we feel calm and the stress symptoms will disappear. In the second example, the speech one, the same thing happens. Everything goes well and eventually you feel tremendous satisfaction from the experience.
5. Control over our lives
Another characteristic stress has is the feeling of not being in control of our lives. We think that the ‘dangers’ are omnipresent and as we have no control over them, we can’t overcome them.
5 steps towards understanding anxiety
1. Concern for the future
Basically, anxiety is worrying about what will happen in the future. It consists of worrying or believing that something bad might happen. As with stress, there is an instinctive feeling to run away and avoid things that can cause more anxiety.
2. Emotional element
One difference between stress and anxiety is the presence of an emotional element. With stress, it’s just our perception of the current situation, but, with anxiety, our minds go back to a situation or unpleasant emotion of the past, a situation that we may not even remember.
There are symptoms which are quite similar to stress, but by definition its roots are endogenous, and there usually are emotional elements. Generally speaking, if you feel stressed and there’s no obvious cause such as those mentioned above, these symptoms usually indicate that you are suffering from anxiety.
3. Worry and fear
Normally there is a slower process with anxiety than with stress. As mentioned earlier, anxiety is a feeling of worry and fear. For example, anxiety can arise because of a family’s serious economic problems to make ends meet. This economic problem can make parents doubt their capacity to support the family and its needs. This sense of economic stress can lead to another feeling of anxiety.
4. Negative chain
We illustrate this negative chain related to the previous example in order to recognise the influence of emotions on anxiety, which is not present in stress:
Domestic economic problems -> parents who have difficulty managing home -> begin to worry too much, thinking only of the welfare of their family, their children -> they remember their own childhood and how their parents handled the situation -> they feel they are not fit parents, comparing themselves with their own -> they think that they will lose the affection and recognition of their own family -> so they reinforce the discomfort caused by stress -> now they have anxiety all the time.
We can see how the idea of being unable to handle everyday situations can reach a second stage, the feeling of not having control over your own life.
5. Solving the symptom, not the cause
As you can see there are subtle differences between stress and anxiety. That said, the symptoms are very similar and can be very unpleasant and seemingly difficult to overcome. Anxiety can’t be cured per se, since medicine only fights symptoms and not the cause, although there are things we can do to relieve these symptoms.
In the next post we will explain how we can handle stressful situations we encounter on a day to day basis and also the different ways to combat anxiety without resorting to drugs.