Is it Anxiety or Just Stress?

There is a tendency to explain away symptoms of anxiety by attributing difficulty functioning to work stress, travel stress and family stress.  Generally speaking, "stress" is external and passes when the situation passes.  For example, work stress should be expected to typically abate around the end of the work day.

Anxiety is an internal experience, an emotional reaction to both external and internal life events.  This distinction is murky because stress also engenders anxiety, but it is important.  Let's go back to work stress:  you have a deadline, the phone is ringing off the hook, and you can never tell what mood your boss will be in (as an aside, unpredictability and uncertainty are the two greatest predictors of stress).

That is stress.  But ruminating over the possibility of getting fired, feeling like you aren't good enough, and being unable to "turn off" work worries at the end of the day are closer to anxiety.  Stress is about things, anxiety is about you.

Some other symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Disturbing dreams
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach aches
  • Muscle tension
  • Clenched jaw, sometimes with tongue "glued" to the top of the mouth
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Racing thoughts
  • Thoughts that seem to "bounce" from topic to topic
  • Difficulty getting certain thoughts "out of your head"
  • Difficulty concentrating

Anxiety, once it is understood as a separate problem from stress, is extremely treatable.  While stress can be ameliorated through external actions such as meditation and moderate exercise, anxiety requires a different approach and it is usually helpful to consult a professional.  A good therapist can help you to understand where your anxiety is really coming from and address the issue at its root to help you learn to approach stressful situations differently.  


anxiety or stress