Anxiety vs. Stress

It is helpful to understand the difference.

Stress is the impact of a particular event (or stressor) in which the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system is stimulated for a duration of time. There are good kinds of stress called eustress, like moderately strenuous exercise or the rush of excitement we may feel before speaking in a group. Distress is the kind of stress most often associated with the term “stress”. States of distress include a varying range of strain on the psychological, emotional, or physical wellbeing. States of distress could include getting into a minor car accident, working too many hours, or the rush of fear we may feel before a big speech.

Anxiety, which also stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, is more associated with incessant worry and fear about an imagined negative outcome. Common anxiety producing thoughts may include the fear of not being liked or accepted, something “bad” happening, or the fear of death itself. Anxiety can be a product of a stressful event or can be free floating in nature, with no specific trigger other than our own thoughts.

Everyone experiences some level of both stress and anxiety at one time or another. Both can have a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of a person. Stress is considered more commonplace and something we are always managing and working with.

Anxiety, phobias, and states of panic are often associated more with dysfunctional responses to life’s stressors and are more free floating in nature.

Anxiety can remain somewhat low grade for a long duration in some or can have dramatic spikes (i.e. panic attacks) in response to high stress or trauma.

The symptoms can be similar for both stress and anxiety. Whereas stress often dissipates when the life stressor passes, a diagnosis for an anxiety disorder requires the symptoms to be present for a minimum of six months. Treatment can look similar although anxiety can be tougher and longer to treat as its causes are less identifiable. Those who suffer from stress and anxiety can both benefit greatly from an integrative psychotherapy rooted in both mind and body-oriented interventions.

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