When we hear the words stress, worry and anxiety we tend to picture sleepless nights, shakiness, shortness of breath, and the inability to think clearly. Indeed these symptoms and others are prominent in all three states of emotional distress, making it confusing to describe both our feelings and the extent of impact. It turns out that there are differences between stress, worry and anxiety and professionals agree that while everyone responds differently to life's challenges, it is how we react to stressful events, triggers, and situations that determine the level of discomfort and disruption we experience in our minds and bodies. Let's start with stress.
Stress is the body's reaction to some sort of perceived threat. It is a physical response to a usually harmless situation. Stress can be thought of as our body's built-in alarm system that temporarily protects us. Does this mean that stress is automatically full blown diagnosable anxiety? No. In fact, most of the time stress is short-lived and is a short-term response to remove us from "danger". When the event causing the stress disappears, so do the feelings of angst. Keep in mind that stress can also be eustress where it acts as a catalyst for motivation and productivity.
Prolonged stress, such as a difficult divorce or emotional abuse, however, can lead to extreme emotional and mental exhaustion and diagnosed anxiety. Stress that goes unattended contributes to the anxiety that causes 60 % of human illness and disease and plagues over 40 million Americans 18 and older (as reported by the American Institute of Stress).
Worry is also a form of protection. It has been around for as long as the human brain. The brain is designed to detect threats when we feel unsafe, scared, or in danger. In fact, a little worry is good. It keeps us from getting hit by a car when we are riding our bicycles on a freeway. Excessive worry is not good as it interferes with our daily lives.
Both stress and worry can mimic true anxiety in terms of symptoms.
Clearly stress responses to daily pressures and obstacles and worry involve irrational and illogical thoughts, making anxiety a reality if not managed properly. Being able to visualize what occurs in the brain when our response to a perceived threat sets off our internal stress alarm can help us minimize our reactions to stress provoking events and situations.
It is said that the brain's limbic system (thinking center) is fully activated upon perceiving immediate danger or worry. This puts the frontal lobe (the "new brain"- the one in charge of logic, reason, creative thinking, language, problem-solving, and compassion) - on pause. Be mindful that sometimes a simple thought can trigger this response because the new brain is sensitive to stress.
When the frontal lobe is not functioning properly and on pause, we react irrationally, illogically, with emotion, and without reason. When we can't "fix" these brain activations that we can sustain true, long-lasting anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is the most severe form of angst and has to be diagnosed by a professional. GAD is a long-standing state of being. Yes, it can be triggered by stress. The main difference from stress is that anxiety does not tend to leave once the precipitating trigger or event dissipates.
For someone who suffers with GAD, the act of worrying is not typically in short doses. GAD sufferers worry about an array of things for most of their day, some to the point of being unable to carry out daily activities. True anxiety is mentally, emotionally and physically paralyzing.
It all begins when our ears, eyes, noses, and other senses pick up on something potentially dangerous or harmful. The senses send the information to a tiny part in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala runs the "fight or flight" response and is in control of our emotions, behaviors, and our self-soothing systems. The amygdala is responsible for our survival and safety, but it also does something else.
The amygdala takes this information, interprets it's meaning, and sends an alerting message to other parts of the brain that control the nervous systems. Neurons start firing and messaging and neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and adrenalin tell our bodies to be on alert. In turn our bodies presenting increased heart rate, shallow breathing, tightness in the chest, sweaty palms, and even panic. Hormones like cortisol are also released to increase our sugar production for quick energy.
This process is all in efforts to survive!
What does this all mean?
Besides there being a difference between stress, worry and anxiety, it means that because we are human and have a brain, we are complicated. Secondly, it means that we are normal because we DO experience anxious feelings. And, it also means that some of us experience stress and worry at a higher degree, and more than just occasionally, making our lives more challenging.
If you are one of the 6.8 million Americans who are affected by GAD, you have unrealistic fears, you don't sleep well, you persistently worry, overthink, panic, or have phobias. Anxieties in these form have taken on a life of their own and affect everything one does, says and feels. This is not stress. This is not worry. This is anxiety in its finest form operating as an internal and external cycle of fear and discomfort.
Despite our individual brains chemistries, genetic predispositions, and environmental experiences, what we do with uncomfortable feelings and thoughts is what matters. How we manage the symptoms and control the degree of interference will determine how persistent stress, worry and anxiety becomes.