Stress, Anxiety or Worry - Which is It?

Patti Ecker, MAC, LCPC

Although we often tend to use the words stress, anxiety and worry interchangeably, and often manage them in much the same way, they really aren’t the same experience.

Defined simply, stress is our reaction to change. When the change is a positive experience, like getting married or expecting a baby, we call it eustress (pronounced “you-stress”); when the change is negative, like a job loss, we call it distress. Our responses to stress can vary – some people become angry, some become depressed, some withdraw; others worry or experience physical illness; some people even feel energized by stress.

Generally, we know what it is that’s causing us to feel stressed – a deadline at work, a big test coming up, illness in the family, planning a wedding, preparing for out-of-town guests. Likewise, when we’re worried (remember, worry is a common way of coping with stress), we generally know what we’re worried about. In other words, both stress and worry have external causes. Since we can name what has us stressed or worried, these tend to lead us toward solutions to our problem.

Anxiety is different. When an individual reports feeling anxious, they usually talk about physical symptoms – shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, shaking or trembling, sweating, tightness in the chest, nausea, chills or hot flashes, fear of losing control. So anxiety actually is more about the experience of these body sensations than it is about what’s making you anxious. In fact, there’s a good chance you don’t know what’s at the root of your anxiety. And that makes for more anxious feelings.

We all feel anxious, worried or stressed sometimes, and these get in the way of experiencing the abundant life that we were created to enjoy. Reading Scripture, relaxation, meditation, mindfulness exercises, changing your self-talk, guided imagery, monitoring your thoughts – these are among the ways you can manage your anxiety or stress or worry. Ask your therapist for suggestions for your personal situation.