Understanding the Differences Between Stress And Anxiety
March 3, 2014

Understanding The Differences Between Stress And Anxiety

In a recent blog article, I wrote about how stress contributes to headaches. This has directed me to further research about stress. In this research, I have come across a plethora of information about stress, from ways to manage it all the way to different kinds of stress. One Huffington Post article identifies some very important information including similarities and differences between stress and anxiety. The ability to identify each of these is important for our health. Both stress and anxiety have their own sets of issues and dangers, so it is best to know when we are stressed versus when we have anxiety building up.

First of all, physically, stress and anxiety resemble each other. The physical symptoms are quite similar. Both stress and anxiety speed up the heart rates, trigger rapid breathing, and bring about muscle tension. However, anxiety often leads to panic attacks in many. This brings on a litany of other, more severe, symptoms including chills, headaches, hot flashes, and chest pains. In some, panic attacks can lead to fainting or passing out.

Though stress and anxiety share many of the same physical symptoms, the causes vary pretty distinct. David Spiegel of Stanford University notes that the two emotions stem from different places. In his words, “With stress, we know what’s worrying us but with anxiety you become less aware of what you’re anxious about [in the moment] and the reaction becomes the problem…You start to feel anxious about being anxious.”

For instance, much of what causes anxiety stems from fear, an internal situation. Fear comes from terror, which causes suffering and panic. Moreover, we have a tendency to avoid those phobias that plague us, which makes the fear worse, stronger, thus the fear has a greater hold on our anxiety. The Huff Post article explains that the best method for dealing with fear-based anxiety is to face the fear head-on and take steps from there to help that individual cope.

Alternately, stress comes primarily from external situations. “Spiegel suggests dismissing any thoughts of multitasking in order to better manage stress and to let go of the idea that you need to solve everything.”

Despite these different experiences and causes, we often use anxiety and stress as synonyms. Daily stress is more attributable to frustration and nervousness while anxiety roots in fear, unease, and worry. The Huffington Post referenced a blog post on Psychology Today to explain this. It said:

“In everyday conversation, we use the language of emotions that we’re comfortable with and that fits our psychological complexion. I’ve worked with clients who don’t report feeling anxious or afraid. “I’m incredibly stressed out…” is their language of choice. “Stressed” is the codeword for “totally freaked out” for people who are allergic to identifying and sharing their own vulnerability. Or, at the other linguistic extreme, a woman in therapy tells me that she feels “sheer terror” at the thought that her daughter’s wedding dress will not fit her properly. I know her well enough to translate “sheer terror” into “really, really, worried.” Whatever your emotional vocabulary, no one signs up for anxiety, fear and shame, or for any difficult, uncomfortable emotion. But we can’t avoid these feelings, either.”

Stress is an emotion that we can deal with. It comes from an external source, and usually simple steps to manage time, organize our lives, or generally cope with the external forces lessens the stress. Anxiety, on the other hand, leaves us feeling helpless. It stems from inside ourselves and thus leads to a more helpless lack of control. Stress is often easy to control while anxiety proves more difficult.

Though neither feeling is fun, anxiety has the potential to lead to pretty dangerous health issues rather quickly. Stress also contributes to dangerous health conditions, but it is also easier to manage. This is why it is important to know the difference between stress and anxiety.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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