Anxiety vs. Stress
I have always been a “worrier.” For so long I attributed it  to my personality, however, when I entered my 20’s I began to experience overwhelming feelings of worry and helplessness. I couldn’t sleep well, and I would get the feeling that my chest was tightening. My friends told me that I must just be stressed about school. At first, I brushed it off. I was just stressed. Once I began experiencing panic attacks, I knew it had to be something more. I spoke with my doctor and she explained to me that I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Turns out there was an actual cause to a few of my other behaviors that I didn’t even realize were abnormal, such as unreasonable worry and the ability to jump to the worst conclusions instantaneously. It felt good to find an answer to why I felt the way I did, and I was glad to know I wasn’t crazy or alone. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions, and many celebrities such as Emma Stone and Amanda Seyfried have opened up about their struggle with anxiety.

Anxiety and stress are typically used interchangeably, however, there is more to these two conditions then many realize and they are actually quite different. It is important not to dismiss anxiety because for those who experience it, it can be quite difficult to cope with.  Here are three ways anxiety differs from stress.   

The Cause
The biggest difference between stress and anxiety is the cause. When it comes to stress, there is a distinct reason why it is happening. The impending deadline or messy house is a specific trigger that we can recognize as something that is causing us stress. Everyone feels anxious when stressed however, once that that cause is dealt with (the bills paid or the house cleaned) the stress and anxious feeling typically goes away. Anxiety presents as with a feeling of fear or helplessness that even after stressors have been resolved, usually still remains. For example, when I do not receive a text back in a timely manner, I begin to get extremely anxious and immediately think something horrible has occurred. Even after I receive the text and an explanation, that feeling of fear and worry remains, and may continue for hours.  Anxiety can be increased by stressors, but it can also be caused by genetic and environmental factors. These causes are not always clear or distinct. In fact, for many anxiety is involves excessive worry about situations that are not threatening or may not exist at all. Many times a person experiencing anxiety may not know why they are anxious. On occasion, I will go through a seemingly good day with a feeling a dread and chest tightness. I do not have any specific stressors that I can think of, yet I still feel anxious. You could think of anxiety as something that is typically always present for those who experience it. Sometimes it may be more dormant or managed and sometimes it may be mild. Other times (especially when additional stressors are present) it may be severe and even interfere with day to day life. 

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Panic Attacks  
While anxiety and stress can involve similar symptoms such as increase heart rate or muscle tension, panic attacks are a product of anxiety, not stress. Panic attacks typically involve excessive sweating or trembling, racing or pounding heartbeat, nausea, and chest pain, shortness of breath, chills, and even numbness in the hands or face. They come on suddenly and can last 10-20 minutes or more. If you are experiencing a panic attack, it helps to focus on your breathing. I know when I am having a panic attack, I start to panic about panicking and it turns into a torturous cycle. I try to remind myself to focus on one thing like my breathing or my dog. Additionally, if someone is experiencing a panic attack around you, the best thing you can do is just ask what they need from you. They may need you to just sit with them or hold their hand. Never tell them to be calm or settle down, as it will likely make the panic attack worse rather than better.

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How it's Treated
Stress is treated by resolving or removing the stressor. Anxiety can be self-managed or treated with therapy and/or medication. Although, if self-managed it is extremely important to manage anxiety with healthy coping mechanisms rather than unhealthy ones such as drugs or alcohol. I used to take medication to manage my anxiety, but currently I choose to self-manage it with some healthy coping skills.  Some great coping mechanisms I like to use to ease my anxiety are journaling, listening to a few of my favorite songs, or simply talking to someone I trust. There is a book I love is called Grace, Not Perfection: Embracing Simplicity, Celebrating Joy by Emily Ley. It is half book and half journal. It really helped me through a time when my anxiety was at its highest. If you do not suffer from anxiety you can help others cope by being sure to validate their feelings of anxiety. Never dismiss someone’s feelings or tell them to “calm down” or that they are being “dramatic.” As explained, many times a person may not even know why they are experiencing anxiety, and this feeling cannot easily be controlled. 

  If you feel you are experiencing anxiety or panic attacks please speak with your healthcare provider. 

Amanda grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, IL but is now enjoying living in Louisville, KY. She received her bachelors degree at Northern Illinois University where she acted as a resident advisor and mentor to fellow students. This was where she found her passion for wellness and helping others. She went on to study community health and receive her Masters of Education at the University of Louisville. During her studies, she focused her graduate research on programming for mental health and youth wellness. She also acts as an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention. She has always enjoyed using her voice and knowledge to educate and advocate about important health topics. Amanda spends much of her time employed as a nanny for three wonderful children.

When she is not busy promoting health education or chasing around the kids, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, playing with her Pomeranian, Sulley, or indulging in a great book. Amanda thrives on helping to educate others about important health issues and effective health related behaviors so they can live happier and healthier lives!