Many words from the "dictionary of psychology" have become part of popular culture, so it is not uncommon to hear "I am stressed" or "I am anxious". Often, doctors and other healthcare professionals also use the two terms stress and anxiety interchangeably, even if they are not the same thing.
The problem is that both stress and anxiety cause the same symptoms, so it's not always easy to recognize the differences between the two. In fact, both anxiety and stress are adaptive responses to the environment. The problem arises when these states are maintained for long periods of time.
What Differentiates Stress From Anxiety?
1. The cause of stress is easily identifiable, that of anxiety is not. As a general rule, stress occurs in the presence of stressful situations, such as overwork, breakup of a relationship, interpersonal conflict or illness. Conversely, anxiety is a more common state, which persists even when the stress is gone. Basically, we know where stress comes from because there are one or more situations that worry us, but it is more difficult to determine what causes us anxiety.
2. In anxiety fear predominates, in stress worries. Another difference between stress and anxiety lies in the feelings and sensations that both states generate. While they may seem identical at first glance, the truth is that anxiety behaves like a snowball that goes downhill and tends to turn into a generalized fear, the highest expression of which is panic attacks. Conversely, when you suffer from stress, worries often take precedence, which usually revolve around the triggering situation as well as a feeling of nervousness and frustration. In anxiety, these concerns are more vague and general.
3. Anxiety is an excess of the future, stress an excess of the present. One difference between stress and anxiety is their projection over time. Anxiety is often a response to anticipation of situations, the idea that something bad could happen, so it's more of a terrified gaze into the future, the fear of something that hasn't happened yet. In fact, fear of anxiety is one of the main factors that make you anxious. On the contrary, stress is often an excess of the present, since it is usually accompanied by the feeling of not being able to cope with the situations we are experiencing, and is activated when we believe that we do not have the resources to deal with certain events. A very simple example to understand the difference: the person is stressed when he arrives late for an important meeting and spills a cup of coffee as soon as he leaves the house, on the contrary, he is anxious when he constantly thinks that the cup of coffee could fall on him.
4. Stress is often caused by external factors, anxiety feeds on internal factors. While it is difficult to distinguish between internal and external factors, stress usually tends to be the result of events that we find difficult to manage. The situation that causes them tends to get out of our control. On the contrary, anxiety feeds mainly on internal factors since it involves an agonizing anticipation of events that have not yet happened, it is the expression of anticipatory catastrophic thoughts. The difference between internal and external factors is important because if you know exactly what worries you you will be able to take the necessary steps to deal with that situation, whether it is an external event or a problem you feed into your mind.
5. Stress disappears with the stressful situation, the anxiety remains for a long time. Normally, when the situation that worries us is resolved, the stress disappears or at least lessens. For example, when we have finally finished and delivered the project we get rid of the heavy burden. But the same doesn't happen with anxiety, because, not being caused by a single event, sometimes it is necessary to resort to psychological therapy to learn how to manage this state and relax.
When should you worry?
It is important to know that eustress, as positive stress is called, is not harmful. On the contrary, it gives us the extra dose of energy needed to tackle the task ahead. Anxiety is also not negative, that state of apprehension that occurs mainly when we feel vulnerable helps us prepare our body for action. This is why both states produce increased adrenaline production, heart rate and muscle fatigue.
The problem begins when these states, which must be temporary, become chronic. At this point our body is overloaded and the endocrine and nervous systems begin to show the first signs of saturation and can even collapse.
Therefore, although these are normal responses to certain situations, it is important to limit them as soon as possible. In fact, in many cases, when stress is maintained over time, it can turn into anxiety, and this can end up causing panic attacks, which greatly limit the person's life.