What’s the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

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Words are powerful. This concept isn’t new, but for now, we’re not talking about the detrimental effects of criticism, the influence of positive reinforcement, or the things to say (or not say) when someone is grieving. Today, we’re talking about the power of naming our emotions. “Anxiety” is a buzz word these days. Everyone and their child is anxious. But what if it’s only anxiety in part? What if there’s something else there? Emotion words have definitions and when we’re able to accurately articulate what we’re feeling, it helps us feel better. There’s a neurological sense of relief when we find the right word. It’s the “ah-ha” feeling.

So let’s run through commonly used words that mean subtly different things.

Anxiety: The anticipation of something happening in the future that is out of your control and it’s going to be bad.

Anxiety always has a sense of being without power or control. We get anxious when we’re flying because we’re not the ones flying the plane. We’re anxious about upcoming holidays because who knows what our families are going to say. We’re anxious about work because we’ve heard rumors of layoffs or maybe we’re scared of messing up.

Fear: We experience fear when we perceive a threat.

Maybe were not just anxious about our relationship, maybe we’re scared of being abandoned. When our significant other is distant—that’s the threat. How we perceive the interaction between our significant other and his or her co-worker is the threat. When our child is punished—do they perceive it as a threat to the relationship? All are possibilities.

Stress: When we don’t have what we need to meet a demand.

We experience stress when we don’t feel equipped. Giving presentations, having to train a new hire, taking a test at school, or hosting thanksgiving when you struggle to make pancakes are all examples of when we feel stressed.

Overwhelmed: There are too many demands on our plate and we can’t keep up.

Let me give a shout out to the overwhelmed mom. She trying to be a good mom, a good wife, now a teacher, all while figuring out what’s for dinner, scheduling and taking kids to appointments, showing up for soccer games, and navigating the delicate balance of her relationship with her mother in law. I feel overwhelmed just thinking about it. 

Pressure: It’s all riding on you.

Pressure is the moment when we’re at bat. We’re the one people are counting on and if we fail, we don’t just fail ourselves, we fail our people. Our people might be family, friends, our employer, or our teammates. There are also different degrees of pressure. Maybe your performance at work determines whether or not you keep your job, or maybe you feel pressure to help your team to state, or maybe you feel pressure to keep your sister, who has suicidal ideation, alive. The pressure of life can feel crushing at times.

These emotions are similar and we often feel them simultaneously, but they’re different. So why bother figuring out what it is that we’re actually feeling? There are a couple of reasons: first, as mentioned, simply naming your emotion alters changes how we feel on a brain level. Second, in order to respond appropriately, we need to know what it is that we’re dealing with.

For Anxiety, we work on letting go of our attachment to a desired outcome and embracing the idea of “come what may”.  We utilize deep breathing, mindfulness, and awareness around problematic thinking patterns. If we’re stuck in fear, safety is the goal. We might go about that in a similar way, but the conversation around fear and threat is different. If we’re stressed, we need to focus on equipping ourselves or our children because when we feel equipped, we also feel empowered and capable. When we’re overwhelmed, it starts a conversation about asking for help, reducing responsibilities, or working on time management.

How does naming the emotion change the conversation for you? Does it change your perspective on what your child is dealing with or what you’re dealing with? Does it change how you respond? Aren’t emotions fun? There are so many techniques you can do on your own. If you feel like you’re getting stuck, it might be time to reach out for support. As always, we’re here to help.

**The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).

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