Stress and anxiety have a lot in common so it can be difficult to tell them apart. Both can leave people feeling strained, unable to cope, fearful and avoidant. Both can make a person’s body tense, have disturbed sleep and appetite. But they are different and being able to tell them apart can help you know how to respond to each.
What is stress?
Stress is an expected human response to challenging or dangerous situations1. Interestingly, the term has only been in use since 1946 when Hans Selye used it to describe strain and most humans’ response to strain2. The word was borrowed from engineers who use it to describe the force on an object. Stress triggers what is known as the flight or fight response that prepares your body for dealing with a threat: by fighting it or by taking flight and running away. Modern threats seldom require a fight or flight reaction for survival and so the experience of stress can feel out of place. It is important to emphasise that stress is a normal reaction to a challenging situation, and the feeling of being stressed passes when the challenge is overcome or passes3. By contrast, anxiety can remain long after the threat has passed and it can keep a person fearful of situations regardless of their likelihood and regardless of the severity of the threat.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety refers to a group of mental illnesses that features excessive fear and anxiety. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat4. Anxiety differs from stress by being persistent and the fear is often excessive or out of proportion to what the feared object would usually produce. Deciding what is excessive and normal is best left to experts trained to make diagnoses. Examples of Anxiety Disorders include Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Disorder and Phobias. While these conditions can be very different to each other the thing they tend to have in common is anxiety: a fear that impacts a person’s important areas of functioning over a prolonged period of time. And unlike stress, the anxiety doesn’t go away when the stressor does. To make it a little more confusing, stress, experienced over a long period of time can exacerbate or lead to anxiety.
Your EAP can help you better manage stress and anxiety. You can make an appointment today by calling 1800 629 277 or email@example.com.
3. Fevre, M. L., Matheny, J., & Kolt, G. S. (2003). Eustress, distress, and interpretation in occupational stress. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18(7), 726-744. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/02683940310502412
4. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.