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Is It Stress or Anxiety?

Is It Stress or Anxiety?

Created: 09/10/2019
Last Updated: 11/12/2019

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By Andrea Parsons, MSW, LCSW

Am I stressed, anxious or both? These words are used interchangeably but there is a difference between them. It's worth figuring out which affects you because resolving anxiety requires a different approach than resolving stress does.

Let's start with stress; it is our response to something happening in our environment. You wake up 45 minutes late on the Monday morning of your 9 a.m. presentation as your toddler fights every step of your morning routine.  This would likely make most people feel some stress.  The stressors are 1. You're running late and 2. You have a tiny human slowing you down.  

The stress of this kicks you into go mode. You likely would feel a surge of adrenaline where your heart rate increases a bit as you focus on what needs to get done to get out the door asap. It's important to know that when stress is viewed positively as a motivator it improves our overall well-being. This Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist, is a great resource that explains how it is how we think about stress, not the stress itself, that affects our physical and emotional well-being.

Anxiety would kick in if you told yourself the story that you're going to be late to work, which will mean that you won't be prepared for your presentation,  which will mean that the quality of it will suffer, which will mean that your boss will think that you don't know what you're talking about, which will mean that you won't be asked to present again, which will mean that you're not going to advance in your career, which will mean that you're going to stagnate, which means you're trapped in this job forever, etc.  

These thoughts are all happening as you're brushing your teeth because anxiety is the story that we spin in our mind about some sort of loss on the horizon.

In the above, it's the loss of career advancement. If we don't pull out of this mindset, our story can end in a catastrophe as the losses multiply. As this thought process gets louder and louder the limbic system in our brain starts responding to it.

The limbic system houses both our emotions and our fight, flight or freeze responses. It believes whatever our neocortex, which houses logic and reason, tells it. So when we continue with our story of future loss, it sounds a false alarm that danger exists. We might become queasy or short of breath, sweaty and distracted unable to focus on what's happening before us. It feels physiologically very similar to stress.

Given that we all have anxious thoughts from time to time how would we know that ours is holding us back from living our life to its potential?

Foremost, it's important to know that anxiety shows up in different ways. For some, it can be specific to social situations where a fear of being embarrassed or humiliated holds you back from putting yourself in social situations so much that it is affecting your quality of life. And, this is persistent over a period of months not isolated to a singular event.

Sometimes, anxiety shows up in the form of obsessive thoughts about something that we don't want to think about but have great difficulty controlling. One way to control these thoughts is to engage in a behavior compulsively in a way that also feels very out of control. Anxiety can also show up for others as feeling restless, fatigued, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and irritable to an extent that it is impairing your able to function well for more than a couple of months.

Additionally, if you have survived a traumatic event that threatened your safety, anxiety can show up in the form of you feeling as though you are constantly on guard, you have intrusive memories of the event that overwhelm you, you become avoidant in a way you weren't before the event, you experience nightmares and/or feel a sense of detachment from the world. A form of anxiety that doesn't get as much airtime as it ought to is postpartum anxiety. Symptoms include feeling constantly worried, restlessness, racing thoughts, a sense that something bad is about to happen, and sleep disturbances.

Feeling panicked is also a form of anxiety. This is when you have a strong physiological experience where you experience a combination of at least four of the following; your heart is pounding, nausea, dizziness, the belief that you are dying, impending doom, chest pain, trembling, shaking, numbness, feeling smothered, chills, heat sensations and/or the fear that you're "going crazy". The onset is fast and reach their peak at about 10 minutes in.

If any of these symptoms resonate with you and you've tried to manage them yet still struggle it's important to know that there are MANY resources available that will help you to resolve it. Reach out to your primary care physician, community mental health clinic or health care professional.

Reach out knowing that you're not alone in your struggle and that your greatest life is waiting for you on the other side of your anxiety.

For more resources on anxiety disorders, visit the "Organizations and Support" tab here.

Andrea is a therapist, wife and mom trying her best to balance work and life so she can enjoy all the beauty that life in Northern California has to offer her.

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