Denise explores the crucial differences between feeling stressed and suffering from anxiety.
- Denise Porter
“Are you stressed?” My boyfriend asked me again this past week.
“Are you stressed out, you look exhausted!” My friend asked me while I was focusing on my revision.
“I think she’s stressed,” whispered a few acquaintances as I made my way into my lecture room.
I have unwillingly accepted people I come across on a daily basis may assume I look stressed. However, the truth of the matter is I am not stressed; I am experiencing anxiety. I was recently diagnosed with social anxiety.
Social anxiety is an overwhelming and persistent fear of social situations that leads to intense worry before, during and after a social situation. My fear can occur in situations that wouldn’t faze others, such as sitting in a large lecture room, writing with other people around me, and meeting new people – basically any situation where I feel I may be evaluated or judged.
I used to feel ashamed and embarrassed of shaking, sweating, and feeling unable to conquer an activity that others take for granted. However, with the help of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), I have learned to be forgiving and accepting of my anxiety.
It is true both stress and anxiety appear to present similar symptoms: they both leave you unfocused, edgy and frantic. However, it is important to know the difference between the two, so figuring out whether you are experiencing anxiety or stress is important for forming the foundation of your recovery.
Stress is caused by ‘stressors’ (such as work) that place pressure on the body and the mind resulting in adrenaline release. It usually ends once the source of the stress has passed. David Spiegel Associate Chair of Psychiatry at Stanford University, suggests dismissing the idea of multitasking and instead focusing on what you can do and rewarding your accomplishments.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a feeling of intense fear, apprehension and worry that can happen at any time without a known source of where the fear comes from. This inevitably adds to feelings of distress on a day-to-day basis. Anxiety may be treated with medication or by a professional psychological treatment such as CBT.
Anxiety also persists after the problem has been resolved. I cannot pinpoint one single factor which first triggered my anxiety. I do remember feeling anxious when starting secondary school, and the pressures associated with trying to fit in and do well academically so I could eventually go to uni may also have played a part. I eventually started to experience insomnia, shakiness for no apparent reason, and a need to hide from everyone.
Eight years later I had started my first year at university and I thought I had finally made it. However, while everyone was enjoying Freshers’ Week, going out, meeting new people, and settling into university well, I was struggling – and I continued to struggle throughout the three years of my undergraduate degree. Due to my anxiety, I found it difficult to concentrate in lectures and I missed out on a lot of opportunities.
Chronic anxiety must be treated distinctly rather than as a by-product of stress. If you are experiencing either stress or anxiety you don’t have to deal with it on your own. You can start by talking to a trusted friend, family member, or health professionals. No matter what you are going through you owe it to yourself to receive the support you deserve to feel happy and safe.
And as for those well-meaning family, friends and acquaintances I mentioned at the start - please read this article! Although your concerns come from a good place, inferring that I am stressed does not provide me with the opportunity to evaluate my health for myself and seek out the right help needed for me. So, before you’re quick to impose a label on me, ask me how I feel instead.