About a month ago, my therapist entered our weekly virtual therapy session and caught me playing with my fidget cube. When she asked what was going on, I started rambling about everything going on with my work and personal life. Then I mentioned how I’d felt anxious for the past several days.
Without missing a beat, my therapist asked me a simple question: Is it anxiety or stress?
Before that moment, I’d never really thought about stress and anxiety as separate entities. I live with an anxiety disorder, and I feel like experiencing anxiety is an everyday part of my life. So isn’t it always anxiety?
As my therapist and I continued our discussion, though, I realized that stress and anxiety can exist separately from each other — and I could be mislabeling some of my stress under the umbrella of generalized anxiety.
Since that conversation, I’ve learned four methods I can use to separate whether I feel anxious or stressed:
The biggest thing that separates stress from anxiety is the underlying cause. Stress is typically caused by external factors, like an upcoming deadline at work or meeting someone new. On the other hand, anxiety often comes from your internal thought processes, even when no stress is present.
When I start to feel my heart rate elevate or notice racing thoughts, I now take a moment to check in with myself and ask, “What could be causing this?” If I sit and think about it for a moment, I can usually identify either the stressor or anxiety trigger that tipped the scale.
During my 18-month stint in dialectical behavior therapy, I learned to frequently “check the facts” in various situations to determine if my emotions and the intensity I experienced them in actually fit the moment. While this approach measures emotional intensity, the same principle can apply when separating stress from anxiety.
Although it’s frustrating at the moment, stress usually serves a purpose — it’s one of our body’s natural methods of motivation. For example, you may experience feelings of stress when a family member calls and says they’re stopping by your home with very little notice. The emotions and bodily sensations you feel as you scramble to make your home and yourself presentable fit the situation, which means it’s everyday stress.
However, if you receive that same phone call and start making up scenarios in your head about how none of your family members will ever speak to you again after this one person stops by, which causes you to start worrying that you’ll die alone without any family support, then your thoughts and feelings don’t fully “fit the facts” of the situation. In this case, you may be experiencing anxiety.
Speaking from personal experience, bodily sensations are always a helpful barometer for my underlying emotional state, even when it seems unclear. I’ve learned to recognize how my body “feels” when I experience certain emotions, and labeling these sensations can sometimes help me tease apart what I truly feel when the thoughts inside my head confuse me.
While the bodily sensations associated with stress and anxiety can often overlap, there are some clear indications that one or the other is at play. For many people, anxiety comes with feelings of uncontrollable panic to the point that it can feel like a heart attack or hyperventilation. For others, anxiety causes dissociation or other out-of-body experiences. Inversely, stress often causes bodily sensations like muscle tension and headaches, which may not occur with anxiety.
When we experience stress, our body and mind naturally go into overdrive because that’s what our body is programmed to do. However, in most cases, stepping out of the situation for a minute can actually help reduce the stress we feel. Activities like paced breathing or even a walk around the block can help clear my head when I feel stressed, and I know that many of my friends say the same thing.
In moments where anxiety takes over, though, it requires much more than a quick break to help our bodies and minds de-escalate from the situation. Because of this, trying out quick stress relief activities can help you separate if you’re experiencing stress or anxiety.
I fully realize there’s a fine line between anxiety and stress. I also know stress can often lead to anxious thoughts for people like me. However, I feel like that candid conversation with my therapist has helped me start to tease apart the nuances between everyday stress and my anxiety disorder, if only just a little bit.
By learning how to separate whether I’m anxious or stressed, I can eventually recognize stress before it pushes me over the edge. This can not only help me manage my stress better, but it can also help me avoid at least some of the anxiety that overwhelming stress would cause.