If you are like most people, then you probably use the words interchangeably and think that they are the same thing. They are actually different and are treated differently. The difference is critical in that the way you would treat anxiety is the opposite of how you would treat stress. In this article, I will explain the difference between anxiety and stress and how to better overcome both.
When most folks talk about stress, they mention work stress and the associated burn out that can come from work stress. The descriptors for work stress include: tired, undervalued, underappreciated, and overburdened. The following as I will lay them out are the differences between anxiety and stress. These have to do with thinking patterns, physiological responses, and behaviors.
As I mentioned previously, stress is linked to feeling overwhelmed and overburdened. Anxious thinking is associated with some kind of a worry and your ability to cope with the stress. Anxiety can also produce physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking, dry mouth, racing heart, etc. Sometimes anxiety is characterized by a worry of the unknown and apprehension around what is to come. The worry can induce additional responses such as a headache, inability to relax and other muscle tension and aches.
In general, physical symptoms of stress resemble those of anxiety and could manifest themselves as a headache, muscle tension, and fatigue. Whereas with anxiety you might get a rush of symptoms, stress symptoms do not have an adrenalin type of a trajectory. Stress feels as if you are carrying a heavy burden on your shoulders, which is tiring and overwhelming. That is the reason why stress is fatiguing and anxiety can induce a frenzy of activity.
As a result of feeling anxious, there are two types of behaviors that are commonly seen as a response: avoidance or over-compensation. Over-compensation involves behaviors in which you do extra things to reduce the worry that you feel. These might include spending extra time on a project, calling everyone twice to make sure people are on time for the event or waking up early to prepare for an interview that is seven plus hours ahead in the day. Avoidance behaviors might include not attending an event, procrastinating on a project or not calling someone back.
Stress driven behaviors typically involve multitasking in order to get many things done in a short amount of time. If the stress level is high, multitasking often backfires and then a form of an avoidance is seen. This avoidance response is different from an anxious avoidance, where procrastination is only a temporary delay on a project which eventually gets done. Stress avoidance can lead to a shut down and a permanent avoidance of all responsibility tasks.
So how do you deal with both anxiety and stress? What was the purpose of me going through such a detailed description of the differences between stress and anxiety? As you probably already intuitively understand, the best way to deal with stress is by eliminating it altogether. If you have financial stress, you can problem-solve and either work more or decrease expenses. If you have home stress with your mother-in-law, address the issue, and propose a solution. The idea here is to problem-solve. If there is work stress, discuss the stress with your boss, and propose a compromise. Problem-solving is a big strategy for eliminating stress and examining the role that you play in the situation. You may need more training or extra help to get your job done. Or perhaps you could help yourself and see which areas in your skillset are weak and require extra attention and focus.
Another important strategy that deals with stress and anxiety management is relaxation. Many patients in my office are stressed, because they have stopped scheduling pleasant activities and do not take a time-out to reboot themselves. The best way to relax will look different for each person however, there are a number of relaxation techniques that are available from breathing, to yoga and medication, to watching a favorite movie or going out to a quiet dinner with your partner.
So now that we have looked at stress, what is a way to deal with anxiety? As I said in the beginning, it is the exact opposite of how you would address stress. When you are anxious and try to suppress your anxiety, what is a common response? Anxiety is like a bully. The more it bosses you around and the more you try to distract yourself, avoid it or suppress it, the more it bullies you. When you avoid anxiety, it only becomes bigger and more challenging to deal with. The strategy for dealing with anxiety involves purposely experiencing it in the moment. As an example, lets imagine that you might be stressed about receiving a bad performance review from your boss. If instead of worrying about the feedback you asked to meet with your boss earlier or practiced going through what might actually happen if you got a bad review and sit with that anxiety for a while, I would venture a guess and say that you will gain more confidence in being able to manage your anxiety and practice at having actually done so.
With an anxiety response, whether it be sitting and imagining the worst possible case scenario or actually addressing the situation head-on, the trick is to stick with it. Do not leave an anxiety-provoking situation (even if it is in your mind as a practice run) before your anxiety has a chance to go down. This idea is called habituation and is used in the treatment of anxiety. If you are anxious around dogs, make a point of it and stand at an initially comfortable distance from a dog and continue to stand there until your anxiety drops. If you do it several times, habituation will occur and new meaning will emerge from a previously frightening situation. The concept of facing and increasing your anxiety is counterintuitive however, it is exactly what needs to be done in order to decrease and eliminate anxiety for good.
So if you are experiencing stress, address it and you will eliminate it. If you are experiencing anxiety, increase it. Stay aware of both and take steps to manage both.