What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

Many people speak about being stressed and anxious as if the terms are interchangeable. However, there are differences between both experiences, which can be obvious or subtle.

Stress can be experienced both psychologically and physiologically and is usually a combination of the two. Stress is a response to ongoing and sometimes excessive demands: demands that may be linked to work, family, money, relationships or other issues. While a reasonable amount of pressure is expected to deal with the usual demands of life, for example, study, work, relationships, etc., it is when this pressure escalates or becomes unreasonable that we experience stress.

Sometimes in differentiating between what is normal or usual pressure from what can be considered abnormal, allows us to define if we are stressed and need to take steps to address the cause. Stress can be felt physically as the body reacts to undue stress by experiencing headaches, insomnia, loss of appetite, respiratory problems, and tightness in the chest area among other symptoms. The bodily effects can be accompanied by constant worrying, feeling insecure, a loss of self-confidence, irritability, lack of concentration and other emotional reactions.

Take the example of Tom, who sought counselling due to increasing workplace stress. Tom occupied a middle management position, enjoyed his job and had a good team working with him. However, with a new organisational structure, pressure came from senior management to apply new rules and regulations without any consultation with the staff. Tom felt caught in the middle and could see how upset the staff were and senior management did not hear him when he raised his concerns. Tom began to experience real symptoms as he was unable to eat, there was a constant feeling of anxiety in the pit of his stomach, he could not think about anything other than his problems. At this stage, he sought psychotherapy, which allowed time, and space to speak about the difficulties: over time he realised he did not have to shoulder all the responsibility and in consultation with an external third party began to address the workplace problems. 

There is a difference between acute and on-going stress. Acute stress happens within in short period, for example, when buying a house, getting married, being promoted in work, sitting exams, meeting deadlines. Once the goal is reached, the stress subsides.

Ongoing, prolonged stress can lead to chronic stress with an increase in intensity and frequency of symptoms. This type of stress can lead to serious physical and mental health deterioration and for the health of the individual concerned needs to be addressed.

Anxiety is not an emotion like, anger, sadness, happiness or disgust but anxiety is something that is experienced physically and psychologically. In contrast to stress where pressure is often experienced as coming from outside influences, anxiety is more of an internal response. To what?  It is a response or sign that something is not working, or is out of kilter in a person’s life: sometimes it can be difficult to identify what the anxiety is about.  In psychotherapy and counselling, each person who presents or speaks about his or her anxiety has very particular experience of what each calls ‘anxiety’.  Anxiety can take many different forms, for example, it can manifest in generalized anxiety, phobias, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Psychoanalysis considers that anxiety stems from internal psychic conflicts. Internal psychic conflict arises from opposing or incompatible forces within the psyche – this happens at an unconscious level. This conflict manifests itself or finds expression at a conscious level in the form of symptoms such as anxiety, depression, somatic illnesses, etc., Psychoanalytic psychotherapy allows the person to begin the process of questioning what the anxiety is about, perhaps what triggers it and in what environment and circumstances. Speaking about the experience of anxiety in one’s life puts the client to work out and question their difficulties opening up possibilities and ways of living your life that is more life-enhancing.

Through the process of psychotherapy and counselling, you can discover inner resources and capabilities to make different choices, to take a pathway more in keeping with your desire.

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