What's the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

Some topics we cover in this newsletter have clear, definite differences: Bugs and insectsConcrete and cementHash browns and home fries. We define them and we draw lines in the sand because putting things in boxes and imposing order on them feels pleasing and correct. 

But when it comes to human emotions, things tend to get a little bit slippery. And few emotions are as human—and as nebulous—as stress and anxiety. Chances are, you’ve experienced one or both in your life, probably more times than you can count—but your lived experience could feel very different from the person next to you, from your best friend, from your therapist, from me! So why do we even try to define them? Because understanding and putting a name to the things that we feel can be the first step towards working through them. 

So let’s give it a shot. Stress is usually something that comes with an identifiable cause, some external factor that creates a sense of pressure, tension, nervousness, and/or alertness. It’s a reaction to something tangible happening: I have a deadline coming up, or I’m moving, or I’m starting a brand-new job, or even I’m throwing a dinner party and my apartment is a mess and people are arriving in ten minutes. When that “something tangible happening” happens and gets resolved—when you hand in the paper, or you finish moving, or you get settled into your job, or your friends arrive and help you clean—the feelings of stress usually dissipate.

Anxiety, however, is less clear-cut. It’s less about an identifiable external cause or stimuli, and more something that comes from an internal place. It’s feeling on edge, restless, tense, worried, apprehensive, and/or nervous, oftentimes without really knowing why—for me, it can manifest itself as a constant, nagging feeling that I forgot something but can’t quite remember what. It can be situational, when stress about an external factor spirals into worries and fears beyond the issue at hand, or can come from an anxiety condition, of which 18% of adults struggle with. There are many different forms of anxiety, too many to get into here (especially as someone with no psychological training). But it’s important to know that anxiety can rear its head for both concrete reasons and for no reason at all, and that if you struggle with it, you’re not alone.

While we have these loose definitions, it’s important to note that stress and anxiety have a very intimate relationship with each other. An external cause can turn on both stress and anxiety; too much stress can morph into anxiety; anxiety and stress can shack up and co-habitate. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by either (or both), remember to take some time for yourself, whatever that means for you—and to hit up a friend and/or therapist to talk things out. Stress and anxiety can be isolating, but it doesn't have to be that way. 

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