Stress Less Week: Is it Stress or an Anxiety Disorder?

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We often talk about stress and anxiety disorders as if they’re interchangeable. This isn’t surprising. A lot of the physical symptoms we experience with stress and anxiety are the same. Heart palpitations, sweating, rapid breathing, muscle tension, and headaches are all common symptoms.

Stress, of course, is a regular part of each person’s day–no matter how laid back they are.

Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, are not part of everyone’s experience. That’s why I think it’s important to clarify the distinction–especially as we head into finals season.

Stress enables us to get things done efficiently.

Most of us are motivated by things like deadlines, grading criteria, and page limits. They give us a framework for getting things done and help us understand the scope and expected quality of work. Can it be agitating to have to work under these parameters? Absolutely. Does it mean we produce a quality product on time? Usually.

Anxiety disorders prevent us from getting things done efficiently.

Unlike stress, anxiety disorders stop us in our tracks. They make us question every little decision. Sometimes our anxiety ensures that we are finished with a project way before the deadline, but that we’ll fixate on whether the most minute details are correct right up until the minute it is due. In other words, we might get our work done, but we put way more effort into it than we need to. This is neither productive, nor efficient. Other times it prevents us from acting at all for fear that we’ll do something wrong, be embarrassed, or fail entirely. That’s definitely not productive or motivating.

Stress passes.

Once a project is completed, a conflict is resolved, or a solution is found, the stress around that event dissipates. This is because stress typically has an external cause. So, once that cause is gone, so is the stress.

Anxiety persists.

Even after the deadlines have long passed, the fight you had with your friend has been smoothed over, or you’ve come to an answer to a life-changing question, the tightness in your chest, the shallowness of your breathing, and your constant thoughts about it all persist. You can’t do anything about it anymore. The external source of stress is gone, but your mind keeps going back to it–even days, weeks, and months later. Why? Because anxiety is perpetuated by persistent fear–not just passing stressors.

We can control stress.

With proper awareness of stress management techniques (and usually just listening to our bodies), we feel a sense of control over our stress. A walk, workout, meditation session, or sitcom binge helps us to bring our equilibrium back.

We have no sense of control over anxiety.

Anxiety is characterized by a feeling of helplessness. We are at a complete loss as to what we could possibly do to make the feeling go away. Maybe a workout or meditation session is helpful in the moment, but the feelings come flooding back after. We try all kinds of things, but nothing seems to help.

In reality, we can take control over stress and anxiety.

Throughout Stress Less Week, we will be sharing innumerable ways to relieve and manage stress as you finish up the academic year. But if you think you might be experiencing an anxiety disorder, don’t hesitate to seek help. The sooner we seek help for a mental health issue, including anxiety, the more likely we are to find relief and find ways to live our lives more happily and successfully.

Yup, it’s true. Onset of anxiety disorders often starts between the ages of 18 and 25. Don’t be afraid to seek help on campus, or find a local mental health professional who can get you back on a path to success.

Interested in reading more? Check out this Huffington Post article.