The words stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably. If you’re in high school and feeling the demands of school, family, future, and friends, you might find yourself saying, “I’m under a lot of stress.” It’s the socially appropriate way of saying, “I’m freaking out!”
However, there are times when you are feeling anxious, or even fear. There are times when the demands of life are so great that the anxiety of meeting those demands becomes real and acute. But how do you tell the difference between stress and anxiety? What are the proper ways of using these terms and what are the differences between them.
The physiological experience of stress and anxiety are actually quite similar. The heart might start to beat faster, breathing might increase, and muscles might tense up. However, with stress you tend to be clear about the sources of the tension. For instance, you’re clear that you’re stressed about the chemistry exam, the date next weekend, and the pressure by your parents to get into a good college. With teen anxiety, there is often less of a direct source. You become less aware of what you’re anxious about and you’re even anxious about being anxious.
Anxiety is an excessive or unrealistic amount of worry, anxiety, and fear. Anxiety that is excessive and unrealistic is different than the level of stress that a teen might have prior to an exam, for example, which would be considered normal. But, experiencing anxiety every morning upon waking might be symptomatic of a disorder. In fact, experiencing anxiety that has no direct source is sometimes called free-floating anxiety. An individual who carries an underlying feeling of anxiety and tension throughout the day may very well have a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a diagnosis given to those who experience excessive and irrational worry for at least six months. The excessive anxiety interferes with the ability to function and usually consists of extreme anxiety for everyday matters.
Typically, the stress that you might feel day to day, due to deadlines and demands can be associated with frustration, nervousness, pressure, or the inability to control certain aspects of life. On the other hand, anxiety often comes from fear, unease, and worry. Teen anxiety can be associated to certain phobias, such as a social fear or fear of the dark or a fear of small places. It can be an experience of terror and trepidation of certain places and things. However, stress is an experience that is more common and manageable.
In fact, the key difference between stress and anxiety is a sense of helplessness. When there is fear, often helplessness follows. However, when there is stress, you’re more likely to dive into the problem causing the stress and deal with it. You’re not helpless to stress, unlike with teen anxiety; you have the ability to master it.