Differentiating Between Stress And Anxiety: Do You Have One Or Both And What Should You Do About It?

Either stress or anxiety can put you on emotional overload, but do you fully understand the difference between the two, and, more importantly, know what to do about them?

How Is Stress Different From Anxiety?

While the words stress and anxiety often seem interchangeable in casual conversation, they're very distinct situations. Stress is what happens to everyone in everyday life, such as miles-long traffic, pressing deadlines, and overwhelming headlines. When someone says they're "stressed-out", it usually means they've experienced more stress than they can process or resolve in any given amount of time. For example, the car may be overheating, then they're stuck in the traffic, which makes them late for work, and, in turn, in trouble with the boss. 

Sources of stress can press on until a person feels anxious, which is what distinguishes anxiety from stress. Anxiety is the result of being exposed to stress. Sometimes, a person suffers from anxiety from the inside out, though, in the form of an anxiety disorder. Often, having such a disorder means experiencing the anxiety in the absence of sources of stress or being more sensitive to it than most people.

What Should You Do About Stress?

Ordinary stress comes at you in different quantities and from a variety of sources. The expression "when it rains, it pours" typifies how a person might feel when the incoming stress is more than they can process at once. Much of the time, stress can be managed; however, there is no precise formula for how much an average person can absorb. It requires attention to how you're feeling and how you're affected by the different sources, but it also mandates taking control over your life where you can, like sleeping and eating well, taking a few minutes to breathe and self-soothe, and exercising some of that tension away.

Stress hijacks your life, resulting in everything from insomnia to indigestion and high blood pressure, among other physical effects. Once stress dominates, you're on a collision course with anxiety.

What Can You Do For Anxiety? 

Since you can't always stop the sources of stress in your life, sometimes anxiety is inevitable. Anxiety is a mostly constant feeling of not having control, of being worried and feeling ill-prepared for whatever comes next. Being anxious when you have stress in your life is like being stuck on a roller-coaster that doesn't stop: the ups and downs and twists and turns keep you on edge, feeling physically upset and helpless to find a way off.

Like a snowball rolling down a hill, your anxiety builds out of control. Anxiety is a real, tangible state that can befall anyone, and it may take over before you realize how bad it really is. That's usually when professional help is needed, which can make a world of difference.

Does Having An Anxiety Counselor Make A Difference?

Four very important things happen to someone struggling with anxiety when they seek professional help from a counseling service:

  • They feel an immediate sense of relief after talking about their stressful situation
  • The counselor helps them identify the sources and triggers of the stress
  • The counselor teaches methods of coping that turn stress into something manageable
  • The level of anxiety the person is facing with is identified, with appropriate treatments, including long-term therapy or prescription medications recommended

Learning to manage stress can work to dissolve anxiety for some, but for others, anxiety is a persistent problem that takes on a life of its own, even in the absence of an obvious cause. A counselor can provide short-term solutions for everyday stress that's become overwhelming or they can recognize a level of emotional turmoil (anxiety) that beckons professional methods like cognitive-behavioral or exposure therapy, two highly effective counseling approaches. 

Without professional intervention, serious stress and persistent anxiety turn an otherwise enjoyable and productive life into a nightmare. It's not just understanding the difference between stress and anxiety that's important; it's knowing what to do about them.

For more information about anxiety counseling, contact a local counseling center such as Lehigh Valley Counselors.