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Stress and Anxiety: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

Stress and anxiety are terms that are often used interchangeably. What’s the difference? This post is Part 1 of a series about stress and anxiety.

Stress:

What do you think of when you imagine a picture of stress? I imagine a frazzled mom with hair sticking out, clutter everywhere. The phone ringing. Grinding teeth. Racing from place to place trying to keep up with all of the errands.

Let’s look at what the dictionary says. According to Miriam-Webster, the definition of stress is as follows:

1: Constraining force or influence: such as:

  1. a: a force exerted when one body or body part presses on, pulls on, pushes against, or tends to compress or twist another body or body part
  2. b: the deformation caused in a body by such a force
  3. c: a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation
  4. d: a state resulting from a stress one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium (job-related stress)
  5. e: Strain, Pressure: the environment is under stress to the point of collapse— Joseph Shoben

Anxiety:

  1. 1a (1): apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill a state of being  anxious
  2. (2) medical an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it
  3. b: mentally distressing concern or interest
  4. c: a strong desire sometimes mixed with doubt, fear, or uneasiness

When you read these definitions, what are some of the things that jump out at you?

Stress is a reaction to an outside force.

It is usually short term, transient and followed by a return to baseline. Stress can be healthy or can become chronic and toxic over time.

Stress happens when you have an upcoming deadline, a problem at work or an important task to complete. Stress can be healthy and motivate you to finish the task. The stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine can give you a short burst of energy to get the job done or to help you jump out of the way of danger. Once the deadline or danger has passed, these chemicals leave the body and you start to feel like yourself again. When stress starts to become chronic and toxic, these chemicals stick around and take their toll on your sleep, energy, appetite and even weight or body shape.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is mostly defined by internal forces; processes in the mind and body drive the distress rather than an outside force.

It can be chronic and long-term, and the symptoms stick around long after the outside stressor is removed.

Anxiety can feel like stress that never lets up, or comes on at unpredictable times. While anxiety may have triggers that can be identified, it is often free-form with no obvious cause. Symptoms in the body include sweaty palms, shaky hands, racing heart, chest tightness. Think about the last time you had a big spike of adrenaline, on a roller-coaster for example, except it never lets up. That’s anxiety.

So why does it matter?

Well, if you know the cause of your distress, you are better equipped to pick up the right tools. Stress related to a short-term work project, for instance, might be best handled with a long night and a pot of coffee. If you are experiencing anxiety, that’s the last thing you would want to do because caffeine and lack of sleep both make it worse. Anxiety responds best to activities that help the mind and body feel calm and safe. So while stress and anxiety share symptoms and even bio-chemical processes in common, stress is short term while anxiety is ongoing.

Think about your own stress response. Does it spike and then go away after the threat has passed? Do you have a hard time feeling like yourself again after a stressful situation? Or does it pop up unexpectedly without an outside cause?

In the next post in this series, we will take a look at healthy vs unhealthy coping skills for stress and anxiety. Talk to you soon!

Michelle

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I am a mom, wife, therapist, knitter, crafter and a lousy but persistent runner. I am always looking for ways to make mom life a little easier and a little more fun.
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