While stress and anxiety are both emotional reactions to fear, they represent different responses to it. Learning to differentiate stress and anxiety is a skill that will contribute to both a healthier life and improved self-agency.
I’m going to reduce stress and anxiety to their absolute fundamentals and then provide you with a simple tool for differentiating between them. The tool you are going to learn is quick and easy to use but will take time and commitment to master.
SIMILAR BUT DIFFERENT
What is stress? The simplest way to define stress is as an emotional reaction, based on fear, that is proportional to the situation.
What is anxiety? The simplest way to define anxiety is as an emotional reaction, based on fear, that is disproportional to the situation.
You’ll notice a few similarities between these definitions. Both are emotional reactions, both are emotional reactions that include fear, and both involve a situation. The situation is either real or imagined, and it occurs either in the past, the present, or the future.
Stress or anxiety about the past is called rumination, the present is what is happening at the moment, and the future is what might happen in some future situation.
You’ll notice that there are many similarities between stress and anxiety. So what’s the difference? The difference is the proportion of the emotional reaction to the situation as it actually was, as it is, or as it might be.
The tool for learning to differentiate between stress and anxiety is correctly answering the question, is my emotional reaction proportional to the situation? If the answer is yes, then you are most likely experiencing stress. If the answer is no, then you are most likely experiencing anxiety.
Answering this question requires that you have, at a minimum, the skill of correctly understanding the actual situation and an equal skill for correctly naming and understanding your emotional reactions.
Understanding the situation requires that we have the correct image of it. In our mind, we always have an image of a situation. Not infrequently though, people are out to touch with the image (they don’t ‘see’ it) or they unconsciously distort it. A correct image of the situation is fundamental to differentiating between stress and anxiety. It is the degree of our distortion of the image of the situation that determines whether our emotional reaction results in stress or anxiety.
The tool then is a simple to remember but difficult to master process of differentiation. It can be simplified into an IF, THEN statement:
my emotional reaction is proportional to the situation
I am likely experiencing stress
my emotional reaction is disproportional to the situation
I am likely experiencing anxiety
As a therapist, I often remind my patients that one of the essential psychological skills to develop and master is differentiating between stress and anxiety. I have learned that people who believe they experience “a lot of stress” often actually suffer from generalized anxiety. Likewise, people who believe they “have” anxiety are often actually experiencing frequent stress. Ironically perhaps, if a person does experience a lot of anxiety then recognizing stress tends to be difficult because emotional reactions to situations tend to be interpreted solely as anxiety!
The tool just introduced is a first step towards transforming stress and anxiety. It intentionally simplifies the complexity of both stress and anxiety to give you an opening into the process of differentiating between stress and anxiety so that you can live a healthier life with more self-agency. Mastering the tool will help to change your mind, rewire your brain, and make learning more advanced tools easier.
There are two caveats. First, if you suffer from anxiety mastering the tool may offer symptom relief. But expecting that your anxiety will end is perhaps unrealistic. Second, it is very common for people who say they want to transform their stress and anxiety to be resistant to sacrificing their symptoms. They want to change without changing! Why people who claim to want to transform their stress and anxiety choose instead to identify with their symptoms is a topic for another time.