What's the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

Everyone I run into these days is so stressed, "I've got so much on my plate; I'm stressed at work, stressed with my boyfriend, my head feels like it's going to explode--I need a vacation!" We all seem to know when we're stressed, but what exactly is stress? Stress is one of those words that's hard to define, but like pornography, you know it when you see it and you definitely know it when you're feeling it. If I were to attempt to define stress, I would say it's that out of control, overwhelmed, frustrated feeling that you can't handle the demands that are put on you. 

There are two components to stress, the first is external or circumstantial, like getting stuck in traffic when your expected at an important meeting, or when your boss asks you to finish a thirty-page report over the weekend (just after you told your girlfriend you'd help her move into her new apartment). Whenever you feel that your emotional equilibrium is disrupted and find yourself thinking, I can't do/handle this! You're experiencing stress. The second component of stress is physiological. When stressed your body secretes the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn trigger the body to increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. These changes are part of your body's instinctive, flight-or-fight reaction geared to handle danger. It's this mobilization and expenditure of energy that eventually wears you down.

If you find yourself living with chronic stress, aside from the physiological effects of depletion, you also need to be aware that you could be generating anxiety—thus adding insult to injury. You might not be able to eliminate all of life's stressors, but you can eliminate the unnecessary contamination brought about by anxiety. Simply stated, stress doesn't cause anxiety; what and how we interpret stress does. 

From a psychological perspective, on one end of the continuum we have stress, on the other anxiety and panic. The essential difference is that with stress, once the stressor is gone (i.e., you get out of traffic, you finish the report for the boss) your equilibrium is restored in a reasonable amount of time. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a state of emotional and physiological depletion that leaves you feeling stressed long after the stressor is gone. Another way to look at the difference between stress and anxiety is to recognize that "legitimate" stress is caused by an actual circumstantial challenge that frustrated, frightens, or overwhelms you. Anxiety, on the other hand, is caused, not by the actual stressor, but by our interpretation of that stressor, "I'll never feel better!" Or, "This will ruin my career." Bottom line: stress is driven by circumstantial challenges while anxiety is driven by insecurity. Once insecurity enters the stressful picture, you can count on your stress evolving into anxiety.

Insecurity is very important concept—especially if you're prone to anxiety. Essentially, insecurity is a feeling of vulnerability that leaves you feeling out of control. Human beings abhor losing control and from the time we are born, we seek to develop habits or strategies to maintain our control-balance. Wanting to be in control is a good thing, especially when we're in actual danger. However, seeing danger in safe places is not a good or legitimate reason to seek control—it's a neurotic reason. When insecurity steps into the picture and distorts real danger from imagined danger, then Don Quixote-like, we're off slaying invisible dragons (i.e., projections of doubts, fears, and negatives—the dreaded "What-ifs"). 

In a situation where you're being called in to see the boss, an insecure person might begin thinking, "What if she fires me?" Or, "What if I did something wrong." A secure person will also feel some physiological stress, but will respond quite differently, "I'm not aware of any problems, guess I'll find out soon enough." The difference is that the insecure person resorts to insecurity-driven strategies of control (in this case worrying), while the secure person is able to refuse to speculate or project negatives.

It might be helpful to list a few of the most common examples of insecurity-driven attempts to control. An understanding of how these strategies of insecurity add stress and anxiety to your life is pivotal to your ultimate liberation. Here are a few of the most common controlling strategies: 

● Worry

We worry because we're trying to control by anticipating what's coming around the corner before it reaches us. If we can anticipate danger we tell ourselves that we can be braced and ready (i.e., in control). Unfortunately, as any worrywart will tell you, worry only begets more worry. 

● Rumination

Rumination is another strategy of control that's very similar to worry. The difference is that rumination is more obsessive than worry. Rumination allows us to feel more in control because we feel we're at least doing something about our problem rather than doing nothing.

● Avoidance

A strategy of avoidance controls by creating distance between us and our stressors. This is a turtle-shell way of protecting ourselves by retreating, i.e., not showing up for the meeting; quitting a stressful job; overuse of alcohol or drugs; etc.

● Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a controlling strategy that isn't at all about being perfect; it's about not screwing up and being vulnerable. As it is with all controlling strategies of insecurity, the cure eventually becomes worse than the problem.

You might be wondering, what's a secure person? Essentially a secure person is someone willing to risk trusting him or herself. According to my view, you're not born insecure, you learn it. It's a habit! If you fall prey to insecurity, if you find yourself allowing stress to roil around your head unchallenged causing anxiety or worse, panic attacks, then you need to recognize that you're being bullied by a habit of insecurity. The answer to both reducing stress and eliminating anxiety from your life is to risk trusting yourself. Self-trust is an insecurity buster!

Okay, what's self-trust? Self-trust is nothing more than a willingness to believe. To risk trusting-believing that you have millions of years of evolutionary survival instincts at your disposal to handle whatever life throws at you. Ask yourself, how many problems have you solved in your life? How many tight spots have you escaped? You're a survival machine and you need to embrace and trust this innate capacity to handle whatever life throws at you. In contrast, insecurity is trying to convince you that not only can't you handle such and such a situation, but it will be your unraveling, your Waterloo, and your total destruction.

The next time one of life's challenges leaves you feeling queasy, uneasy, overwhelmed, or frightened, remind yourself that you are a survival machine and that if you'll take the leap of faith and trust your innate capacity to handle whatever life throws at you, you'll be in the best possible position to ride out the turbulence. What's the alternative? You could allow insecurity to convince you that you can't! Once you allow insecurity to steer your thoughts, your emotional fate is no longer in your hands. 

When it comes to any life stressor, the best you can do is try to contain or confine the "legitimate" stress reaction--not allowing insecurity to generalize it--and to remind yourself that self-trust is the ability to deal with the facts of your life rather than the negative fictions perpetrated by insecurity. Do this and you will be steering your life in a healthier direction. You will also be building a psychological muscle that will not only improve the quality of your life, but, from a physiological perspective, will be adding years to your life. 

Here are a few tips on what you can do today to minimize and eliminate anxiety and stress from your life? 

● Remind yourself that anxiety and stress are not the same thing. Stress is a legitimate and objective response to a real life challenge. Anxiety is an illegitimate response (perpetrated by insecurity) that has you convinced you can't handle the challenge.

● Self-trust is a willingness to believe. The sooner you take the risk of believing that you can handle whatever life throws at you, the sooner you will be eliminating anxiety and reducing stress.

● Stress is experienced both physically as well as psychologically. When stressed work to distract yourself from the stressor. Try taking a time-out by meditating, going for a walk, watching a movie, or petting a dog. Anything that pulls your mind away from the stressor will allow you to reclaim some balance rather than to continue depleting yourself.

● In all life situations, recognize that you have a choice. You will experience more stress if you feel that you are a victim. Victims by definition are powerless. In order to empower yourself, you are going to need to recognize that, even if you can't change the circumstance of your stressor (i.e., getting fired, finding out that you have mono, etc.) you can change the way you think and interpret your circumstance. Don't allow insecurity to dictate. If you do, it will only be doom and gloom.

● Don't wait until you are stressed, start building that trust-muscle today! Recognize that learning to trust is learning to risk believing in yourself, begin with small steps, for example, next time you have to choose between vanilla or chocolate, go ahead and trust your instincts—don't overthink it. In time you will be making bolder choices and building confidence. Keep in mine, it isn't about always making the "right" choice, it's just being able to risk being you in the moment and finding out that even if the vanilla was a poor choice, it's not the end of the world. You'll be learning that you don't have to fear life or yourself.

● As my friends in Alcoholic Anonymous tell us, Let go, let God. This happens to be the best piece of philosophy for learning to minimize stress and anxiety in your life. Let go of the ego's insecure, controlling tendency to over-think and then, whether you call it God, fate, a higher power, or that in you which goes beyond the narrow view of the ego, trust the vast instinctual, intuitive potential that resides in you—waiting to be realized.


Disclaimer: The diagnosis of clinical anxiety or depressive disorders requires a physician or other qualified mental health professional. The information provided is intended for informational purposes only. Please understand that the opinions shared with you are meant to be general reference information, and are not intended as a diagnosis or substitute for counseling with your physician or other qualified mental health professional.

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