The words “stress” and “anxiety” have woven their way into our narratives because we have 1) gotten better at naming what we’re experiencing, and 2) with how busy and demanding our lives are, we are more likely to have experiences of anxiety or stress.
What is anxiety? If we look up the definition, it is a “feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically around and imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome” (Source). It’s normal from time to time to feel anxious. Life is challenging and unpredictable.
What is stress? If we look up the definition, it means different things in different contexts. We’ll use the most basic definition: “a state of mental or emotional strain” (Source). It is also normal from time to time to feel stressed – during transitions in life, or a season of work or family life where there is more demand placed on you, for example.
Since definitions of anxiety and stress are different, it’s important to note that a person’s experience of either also varies greatly. As a counselor, it is easier to think of stress as something that is momentary and requires a person to temporarily adjust or adapt, while anxiety is often something that is more pervasive and disruptive to a person’s life – where temporarily adjusting doesn’t help.
How do you tell the difference?
Anxiety pops up in anticipation of something, whereas stress is a response to something.
I’ll give you a few examples to see if you can name whether the scenario causes the person to feel stressed or anxious:
Scenario 1: It’s Monday, and Miles started out his school week excited. By noon, he was unexpectedly given two additional papers that are due by the end of the week and he has a quiz in Science on Wednesday and a test in History on Thursday. Not knowing Miles, do you think he might be feeling stressed or anxious?
Although the two papers were a surprise to him, at the end of his week, the demand of his school work will be much less. It is likely Miles was feeling stressed about the week ahead – he is responding to an increased workload.
Scenario 2: Emily has been dreading going to her holiday work party for a few weeks now. She’s gone through scenarios in her head about what she plans to wear, eat, talk about, and even the topics to avoid. She keeps imagining horrible scenarios in her head about the wrong thing she accidentally said. It’s now two days before the party and Emily isn’t sure she can go. Not knowing Emily, do you think she might be feeling stressed or anxious?
Because of the anticipation, build up, and repetitive, unhelpful thoughts, it is likely Emily feels more anxious than stressed. Another indicator of Emily’s anxiety is that feeling anxious about attending a party has caused her to rethink her decision about going in the first place.
I hope these situations were helpful.
One final question: Can a person feel both anxious and stressed at the same time? The answer is yes.
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It’s important to identify the impact that either the stress or anxiety is having on a person’s life. If they are unable to cope and manage their daily activities, then it is time to consider getting some support. Chances are you are reading this because you or someone you love struggles to manage or cope with their anxiety. You are not alone. Our counselors at Lime Tree Counseling are experts in helping people find ways to better manage their stress and cope with the anxiety they experience. Don’t hesitate to reach out today! We offer a free 15-minute phone consultation and online counseling for your convenience.