Stress vs. Anxiety: The Difference & How To Tell Which You Feel

We all have a limited number of resources in various domains, such as time, money, emotional strength, and social capital of friendships. All of these facilitate our ability to respond to the demands of life events.

When the demands placed on us outstrip those resources, we experience stress. In a simple analogy: If you are 10 minutes away from an appointment that starts in five minutes, you will feel stress for (at least) five minutes. Similarly, if you have monthly financial demands that exceed your income and savings, you’ll experience prolonged levels of stress to the extent that you are short on cash.

Oftentimes, demands and resources are less tangible than time or money. For example, emotional demands can pile up and exceed our emotional abilities, resulting in significant stress. If you have to deal with a complicated family situation—say, a difficult parent or a child with an eating disorder—that can make it virtually impossible to handle other life stressors. In fact, for some people, even having a minor personal altercation at work can be a catastrophic stressor that throws them for an emotional loop for several days.

If you’re not tuned in to your stress level—the extent to which your life demands exceed your resources—you may feel completely depleted and not even realize what is happening. When this happens, stress can beget more stress very quickly. Indeed, stress can have real-world consequences, affecting our moods, physical sensations, productivity, decision-making, and ultimately our happiness and well-being.

When I explained all of this to Jenn, she still looked a bit baffled. “But I’m having heart palpitations,” she said. “Isn’t that a sign of a panic attack?”

I explained that yes, her symptoms were similar to panic, but they were not coming from anxiety. I pointed out to Jenn that her elevated heart rate and constricted breathing were not being caused by something she didn’t need to fear, which meant she wasn’t anxious. Instead, Jenn was genuinely overwhelmed by not having the resources to handle the stressors in her life.

“Does your ‘panic’ go up and down based on how afraid you are?” I asked Jenn. “For example, do you have concerns that you may suddenly have a heart attack and die when you have panic-like sensations, even though you have no known medical problems?”

Jenn acknowledged that, no, she didn’t worry about things like that. I then asked whether her “panicky” sensations rose or fell depending on how many demands were being made on her and how few resources she had.

“Yes!” she said. “That’s exactly what’s going on. Like the other day, I was at work when my son’s school called and said he was running a fever and could I come and pick him up. Well, we were short-staffed at work, and I was in the middle of helping a family that had just been evicted find a place to stay. My husband was traveling out of state on business, so I started calling friends I trusted to pick up my son, but I couldn’t reach anyone. After the third fruitless call, I started hyperventilating!”

Jenn paused to take a deep breath, almost as if she was afraid that she’d start hyperventilating right there in my office. “In fact, that was the day I called you,” she said. “I was starting to feel panic, and that’s when I started searching the web for anxiety clinics.”

“I’m glad you called and came in,” I said. “If only so I can clarify that you are not suffering from an anxiety disorder. You are overstressed, which is giving you a moderate level of anxiety-like feelings. But there’s a difference between that and panic disorder or another form of anxiety. In truth, it’s not bad news to learn that you’re stressed since it is fairly easy to deal with.”

#Stress #Anxiety #Difference #Feel

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