Stress and Anxiety: What’s the Difference and When to Seek Help
The word anxiety is one we toss around liberally. In your workplace you’ve likely heard phrases along the lines of, “Ugh, this week’s deadline is giving me an anxiety attack!” or “I have so much anxiety about my performance review.” In actuality there’s a very real difference between what we might call “run-of-the-mill stress” and anxiety.
Stress is an important evolutionary response. Though many of us think of stress as a bad thing, without the stress response we’d have nothing to alert us to potential danger. It’s a survival mechanism that, in certain situations, serves us well. When we’re faced with circumstances that could result in grave consequences, the FFF response is triggered – Fight, Flight or Freeze. Stress and anxiety are on a spectrum, so the FFF response is going to be felt much more acutely if a person endures a traumatic event (like a car accident) compared with a mildly stressful event, especially if it’s similar to something they’ve experienced before (like a tight deadline at work). That spectrum is an important concept when we’re talking about how stress differentiates from anxiety: it’s tricky to pack these things into neat little boxes, and there’s definitely a grey area between the two. Stress, if left unmanaged, has a way of creeping across the continuum into the realm of anxiety.
We all respond differently to stress. For some, relatively small doses of stress can be helpful. The adrenaline rush and your central nervous system being kicked in to overdrive might help you work as productively as you possibly can. It might be a push to put out your most creative ideas and it may serve as a helpful reminder of how invested you are in the task you’re working on. You might be hyper-focused, meticulous and vigilant. Even in the midst of a stressful situation you can likely see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even when you’re stressed you can imagine what it will feel like when you’re no longer stressed. You can anticipate a concrete end to your symptoms. Thoughts like I can’t wait to turn this assignment in to my boss on Thursday afternoon – it’s going to feel so good! or When I finish this project I’m going to have the best night’s sleep ever! might be running through your mind. These thoughts are likely helpful in maintaining your resilience, or getting you through the stressful stretch. Stress can be unpleasant in the moment, but you reach a “finish line” of some sort and experience relief from your symptoms.
Anxiety is a different animal. While stress can be helpful, anxiety hinders our ability to function and also has a significant impact on our quality of life. One of the key differences with anxiety compared to stress is that a person typically experiences little or no relief from their symptoms. Handing in that work assignment doesn’t elicit a Woohoo! feeling – instead, an employee who’s struggling with anxiety may feel even worse, stewing on whether they did a good job, feeling frustrated at remembered errors (real or imagined), and thoughts that snowball until they’re convinced that they did such a poor job on the project that they’ll be fired. Someone who’s struggling with anxiety will tell you that the logical part of their brain understands that the catastrophic outcomes they’re envisioning are very unlikely to happen, but still that FFF response can’t be shut off. Years ago, when I was working in a clinical role in a mental health care setting, a client who lived with anxiety described it to me like this: you’re probably not thinking about pink elephants right now, but if I tell you not to think about them I’ve planted that seed – so now you’re thinking about pink elephants. The more I tell you not to think about pink elephants, the more they intrude your thoughts. The harder you try not to think about them, the more pink elephants become the only thing you can think about. Once you’ve started thinking about something, you can’t un-think it. If you’re feeling stressed about something, you might be able to decide to put it out of your mind for the moment or distract yourself by doing or thinking about something else. With an anxiety disorder, this just isn’t possible. Anxiety becomes so BIG that it’s usually not really linked to one specific source – it’s not that work project that’s stressful, it’s most aspects of life.
When stress reaches a point where you can’t control your thoughts and you’re fixating on worst-case scenarios in almost all situations, this might be a good time to get a little extra support. Many people also experience physical symptoms like upset stomach, sleep disturbance, headaches, unexplained aches and pains and even high blood pressure and heart palpitations. The earlier you reach out for help, the better… and there’s no downside for doing so. Don’t wait in hopes that things magically right themselves. If you feel your quality of life could be improved by learning some stress management strategies, why not connect with a counsellor or your family doctor? Your workplace’s Employee and Family Assistance Program (E.F.A.P.) and 211 (211.ca or dial 2-1-1) can also help. If you’re noticing these signs in a co-worker or someone else in your life, don’t be afraid to have a conversation with them about it. Flag the changes you’ve noticed and ask what you can do to help. We’ve got a few blog posts that can help you prepare to navigate that conversation: this one and this one, for example. Share information about the EFAP or other community resources. Anxiety can be tough but suffering in silence is much worse.
Thanks for reading! Wishing each of you a low-stress week.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.