Do you feel stressed? Or do you feel anxious? How can you tell the difference?
Excessive stress and anxiety are associated with similar symptoms and negative health consequences, but there are important differences between the two as well. The differences and similarities between stress and anxiety will be described in the two sections below, followed by a section on how to manage stress and anxiety.
Anxiety is a state of inner discomfort that arises in response to unfamiliar or potentially unpleasant situations (e.g., meeting new people, paying the bills).
To understand anxiety, we need to realize anxiety is a future-oriented state of mind. As the DSM-5, the most recent diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, notes, anxiety is the “anticipation of future threat.” These future threats might concern, for instance, the possibility of not having enough money to pay the bills or not being able to get along with a new coworker.
Second, anxiety has a subjective component. For example, you might feel less anxious about an issue (e.g., going for a medical procedure) after you discuss it with a friend, even though the issue itself has not changed at all.
Third, anxiety is associated with a state of diffuse vigilance. To illustrate, if you feel anxious before a job interview, you may worry something (or multiple things) could potentially go wrong while you are being interviewed. But you do not know what or when. Therefore, you will remain tense during the whole interview.
Stress occurs when, whether in actuality or in perception, the environment taxes our resources and thus poses a threat to our well-being.
An important way stress differs from anxiety is that it usually involves external triggers, like illness, financial difficulties, racism and discrimination, noise, political and economic instability, daily hassles, and major life events (divorce, death of a spouse or a child).
This means you are more likely to feel stressed if you are, say, studying in a very hot and humid room. And if on top of that, you keep getting spam phone calls every ten minutes, you feel even more stressed.
Like anxiety, stress can have a subjective component. For instance, you might find your new job stressful if you mistakenly assume you lack the required skills to perform your job.
But stress is not purely subjective. Some major occurrences, such as personal injury or the death of a child, are almost universally experienced as stressful.
Treating stress and anxiety
Let us consider stress reduction first. As noted, we feel stressed when the environment taxes our resources; therefore, to alleviate stress, we need to either modify our environment or increase our resources. How?
To illustrate, to reduce the stress related to starting a new work-from-home job, you could seek more information about the job itself, access available resources (e.g., social support), learn useful skills (e.g., job-related skills), and modify the environment as needed (e.g., reduce noise, eliminate interruptions while working).
Self-care and positive lifestyle changes are important too, for reducing both stress and anxiety. These may include regular exercise, getting sufficient sleep, eating healthy, meditation, and relaxation practices.
In addition, for anxiety, in particular, it would be helpful to address distorted perceptions and thinking patterns, like black-and-white thinking, jumping to conclusions, and catastrophizing. An effective way to address these thinking errors involves the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT helps modify dysfunctional thinking and maladaptive behaviors using a variety of techniques, like self-monitoring and thought to restructure. Research has shown CBT to be effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Last, in cases of severe anxiety, medications may be considered.