If you were to look up the words stress and anxiety in the dictionary, you’ll find two different definitions. However, we tend to clump these words into the same category. We think of them as having the same symptoms. And sometimes use them interchangeably or as an inseparable pair: stress and anxiety. Even dictionaries and thesauruses have these words as synonyms of each other.
Don’t be fooled. There is a difference between them. Knowing the difference is crucial to helping you determine whether anxiety is present, how it got there in the first place, what you can do about it, and even how to prevent it from becoming an anxiety disorder.
So what’s the difference?
Stress is the feeling of mental and emotional tension as a direct result of something. This can be adversity, life’s demands and obligations, tight deadlines, endless to-do lists, etc. With such specific causes, stress can go away or be alleviated by either removing the stress factor(s) or by reducing their presence in your mind.
Anxiety, on the other hand, lingers and doesn’t go away the very moment a major item on a to-do list gets checked off. At its extreme, it can be a full-blown panic attack with symptoms that can send people to the ER. Its symptoms range from a general feeling of distress, worry, and fear. It includes tightness of chest, difficulty breathing, racing heartbeat, dizziness, nausea, and even fainting.
But what’s equally alarming and dangerous are the more subtle versions of the above anxiety symptoms. It’s a constant or frequent feeling of tension, dread, and unease. It’s a heavy heart and breathing that’s not quite relaxed. This kind of anxiety might not be as obvious as a panic attack. Therefore, it’s most often ignored, even when a person is well aware that something is not right. They know they are not fully at ease. Even worse is not realizing something’s wrong. In this case, the anxiety is so imperceptible that it becomes the body and mind’s natural state of being.
Just like stress, both subtle and extreme forms of anxiety can, over time, cause serious harm to your body and mind. On the body, greater risk of things like high blood pressure and heart disease. On the mind, progression into an anxiety disorder and/or depression.
Which is it and what to do
So if you experience symptoms closer to that of anxiety, or what you consider to be stress never goes away no matter what you do (even long after whatever is stressing you out is gone, done, and over with), you might need to ask yourself, “Is it stress or anxiety?” Next, know that whichever answer you land on, they both need appropriate action; and the better you’re able to distinguish between the two, the more appropriate that action will be.