What's the difference between stress and anxiety?

| 16 minutes | Media Contact: University Communications


What’s the difference between stress and anxiety? What signs let us know when someone is becoming overwhelmed? And what steps can we take when we start feeling overwhelmed? 

Melissa Hutchinson, executive director of counseling services at Central Michigan University, has answers to some of the most asked questions about stress and anxiety. 

To learn more about specific services offered at CMU, visit the Counseling Center's web page.





Adam: What's the difference between stress and anxiety? How can you tell if someone is becoming overwhelmed? What are the steps that we should take if we start to feel overwhelmed ourselves? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. We've got answers. Bypass Google and sidle up to The Search Bar instead as Central Michigan University's amazing team of experts answer some of the Internet's most asked questions. I'm your host, Adam Sparkes, and on today's episode, we're searching for answers on stress. Melissa Hutchinson, executive director of counseling services at Central Michigan University is here to help us do just that. Hi Melissa.

Melissa: Hello, Adam.

Adam: It's good to see you. Thanks for coming in.

Melissa: It's good to be here.

What's the difference between stress and anxiety? 

Adam: Awesome. I just wanted to kick things off by talking about stress. It's something that everybody has. I feel like I have stress all the time, and I sort of wanted to talk about the difference between everyday stress and anxiety. Like, is there a point where stress becomes anxiety or is that just nomenclature? Like, is there a difference between these two things when we discuss them?

Melissa: Yes. They're often used interchangeably. I have stress, I have anxiety, but they actually are very different and they share a lot of common things, especially physical symptoms. They're both part of our body's fight-or-flight response. So that's a physical response that is innate. It's designed for survival, but we often make things life-threatening that are not really life-threatening. For example, students may become worried about a test, worried about friendships, worried about a conflict with a peer, and that can trigger our stress response and make us feel more stress than the situation actually calls for. And, so stress and anxiety share a lot of common symptoms. Muscle tension, rapid breathing, and heart rate, difficulty with concentration processing information, disrupted sleep. And so, the difference though, the main difference is that stress is a demanding situation.

You know, the definition of stress, for example, is tension on an object. So we have a stressor that is putting pressure or demands on us. And stress is often short term, it's short-lived, it ends, and once the stressor is removed, individuals usually will feel better. But with anxiety, it is often present even when there is not an identified stressor. That's probably the biggest difference between them. It often will make individuals feel this impending sense of doom or dread, and excessive worry. And they'll often say, I just don't know why I'm feeling this way. So, anxiety is often present when there is not an identified stressor. So, individuals might often say, I just don't even know why I'm feeling this way. But they're often very focused on themselves, worried about how things are being perceived, and anxiety tends to interfere with our day-to-day living where stress is a part of our normal lives.

Adam: So you're getting a similar like, physiological response from them, but it's more about what the causation is. Right?

Can stress become anxiety?

Melissa: Sure. Sure. Absolutely. You also asked, can stress become anxiety? And so, uh, you know, it might be important for anyone to know, like anything that is left unchecked chronic stress can lead to feelings of anxiety or other serious health conditions.

Adam: So, if somebody's enduring stress for a long time and it's not being ignored, we're not mitigating the stress or taking care of ourselves, what does that become? What happens?

Melissa: Well, so, you know, as humans, we're pretty adaptable. We can tolerate a lot of things. We adapt to our environment. It's a survival mechanism that's happened for centuries. But if we ignore stress like any other thing in our life, you know, we know that mental and physical health are so interconnected, right? We are going to likely experience some physical symptoms that become very problematic in our day-to-day life. Chronic stress can lead to things like immune disorders, skin irritations, hair loss, weight gain, weight loss, sleep disturbance, then sleep disturbance can lead to additional things, and it can become this cycle that can be very disruptive and harmful to an individual's overall wellbeing.

What do young people think about mental health? 

Adam: Going back to kind of your experience, you know, again, in a clinical setting, being a director of a clinic here on a university campus, over the years, have you seen a shift in how young people are viewing that, the accessibility of that healthcare, or how willing they are to seek help? Because it seems to me I have, I have teenagers at home that my kids have these conversations out loud with me in ways that I would never have dreamed of having with my parents. 

Melissa: 100%. One of the things that we know about the students that are on our campus today is that the stigma around help-seeking and talking about mental health like they would, physical health, that is far more acceptable today. Seeking help and accessing counseling services is something students are doing long before they arrive on our campus. So they're familiar with counseling by the time they arrive on campus, and many have had regular counseling experiences. And so they're looking at what is it that I need? What is it that stresses me out and how do I get my needs met? And so I think that's a real positive thing.

How do I help someone who is struggling emotionally?

Adam: Okay. So, I wanna shift gears just a little bit, and rather than talk about being self-reflective and trying to help myself, how do I help others? So, if I have a partner or a spouse or a child or, or a roommate or somebody that I am close with and I feel like they might be struggling, are there things I should be looking for or ways that I should approach somebody in that situation?

Melissa: Absolutely. I think the first thing that we need to do is we need to, to take stock of our own response. And the reason that that's so important is that if we can stay calm, the other person can help regulate off of us. So, we wanna take a moment to pause before we respond, maybe take a breath, uh, and then kind of assess what the, the individual, um, is. Are they having a panic attack, for example? Is their breathing rapid? Are they having a hard time focusing or are they just upset? So, it's okay to give the person space and, and we don't wanna crowd them or force choices. We wanna ask them what they need. We don't wanna assume that we know what they need, because if you remember, we talked about us all being different and having different needs, and maybe what might help me in that situation is, is not helpful and actually dismissive to them.

So, we wanna kind of ask them what they might need and then give them some space to, to kind of assess that. Because remember, when we're stressed, our processing might be a bit compromised. You know, we talked about it being our fight-or-flight response, right? And it's a survival mechanism. We don't really need to do a math problem if our life is truly in danger. So processing can become a little bit slower in terms of knowing what we need. And so giving the person that space, listening, being present, maybe just listening and being present is all they need. Maybe they don't even need problem-solving, but they just need a comforting environment to kind of calm themselves down. And then maybe their own coping skills can kick into gear and, and they'll be able to take it from there, you know, grab the baton, they're the next leg of the relay and they're off and running.

Adam: It's kind of like customer service, right? Like, if I feel like somebody's being very anxious and they feel elevated, if I match that elevation, I might just escalate the amount of tension in the room.

Melissa: Yep. Absolutely. And I think the last piece is really important, especially with young folks, is not taking on something that you are not equipped to handle. So…

Adam: So, like roommates or friends or something like that?

Melissa: Absolutely, yes. So, it's a, it's a real tendency to wanna take care of the people that we care about. We don't like seeing them in distress. And so, we might say, oh, just stay here. I'll take care of this, I'll handle it. But what we've done is we've robbed them of the learning opportunity to navigate an important life stressor, and now we're owning something that we don't really have control over, which can now exacerbate our own stress.

Adam: You kinda have that, that kind of caretaker's trauma coming up potentially there, which is like a real thing, I think

Melissa: It sure can be. Yeah.

How do I help someone seek professional help? 

Adam: So if you're worried that somebody that you're close in proximity to physically, emotionally is in a space where they might need help beyond what you can offer, you're not just gonna be able to be that friendly, you're not just gonna be able to try to maintain a level of calm when you're having that conversation that where somebody's coping out loud to, or whatever that might be. What is an appropriate next step if I'm like, I think somebody needs help that's beyond my ability to be a good friend or good partner, or a good parent?

Melissa: You know? So it's really important that we're listening to what they're saying, and we're observing what they're doing. So there's a difference between being distressed and overwhelmed and the potential for safety concerns. So, you know, that is gonna dictate the type of help that the individual might need. So if there is any question about immediate safety, we wanna call 911. We wanna get help there to that individual right away. Most oftentimes, if an individual is having a panic attack, they're just overwhelmed, they're crying, they're upset, and they can't seem to calm themselves down, maybe getting them in touch with professional help, such as the Counseling Center is all they really need. And then we can work with that student to make a plan.

What's the difference between self-care and self-soothing?

Adam: And that's where we get into self-care. Absolutely. And for somebody, I want to kind of hit this from kind of two spaces and you can, you can sort of tell me where you wanna start. I feel like there's two kinds of self-care, at least I'm identifying that and you're the professional. So, you tell me there's sort of like routine self-care that is not necessarily addressing a problem, or at least not an acute problem, and then there's self-care for somebody who might be at the threshold or well into needing a little bit more of a rigorous mental health routine. Can you talk about what those two things might look like?

Melissa: Yeah. So, we call that the difference between self-care and self-soothing. Okay. And so self-soothing is reducing immediate distress, whereas self-care is an intentional action that's designed to address our stressor. Both are helpful, just you can't only do self-soothing. Self-soothing tends to be things like exercise, and we hear that exercise is great, right? So, I'm not discouraging exercise, please know that. Getting your nails done, Netflix, sleep, food, but self-care is actually looking at what the stressor is and addressing that. So maybe that's setting a healthy boundary in a situation. We talked a little bit earlier about the workplace and being asked to do more. Sometimes saying no, and setting that boundary is okay, that would be a self-care action because that's reducing the stressor that's caught, you know, that's impacting you, maybe studying, not showing up to class unprepared, that can be very stressful.

Or coming to work unprepared. So those are strategies that are gonna reduce the stressor that's putting the demand on us. So, self-awareness and taking a look at what we need and knowing how to meet our needs is definitely a developmental task. We're not very good at it when we're young. That's why we have parents to help us. And then that's one of the things that I love about working with college students is that this is such a growth time of their life, and it's so fun to see them with their enthusiasm for life. It's also, um, important to watch them make mistakes because we learn the most when things go wrong. We become complacent when things are right and easy. And if we are really gonna develop our toolbox of coping skills, we have to experience distress and failure. And I think sometimes there is a belief today that we should never be uncomfortable or distressed. And sometimes we are going to because that's gonna be the motivating factor for us to take a look at ourselves and say, what's going on? What do I need? And how do I get my needs met?

What can I do if I'm feeling overwhelmed?

Adam: What are some steps that I can take if I'm beginning to feel overwhelmed?

Melissa: Okay. So I'm, I'm glad that you asked this question because I think we all do get overwhelmed periodically, and, you know, our stress response gets activated in a split second. It is not something that we do consciously. And some of us tend to get there quickly and get overwhelmed quickly. So the first thing that I always like to encourage individuals to do is just pause. There is nothing in the rule book of life that says we have to respond right this second. We can take a minute, we can pause, we can breathe. And if that, a lot of times that'll just get us through whatever situation, a social situation, we're not sure what to say. We feel caught off guard usually that that's, it'll do the trick. But sometimes we can get overwhelmed to the point where we're not functioning very well. Maybe we're having a panic attack, or we are close to having a panic attack and we're just struggling to process information.

Maybe we're crying, we're breathing rapidly. And so, I like to talk about, using a grounding technique. Grounding techniques are something that we can use wherever we are, sitting in a chair, lying in bed, in a classroom and so what they do is they kind of bring us back to the here and now, help us to be able to focus on what we can control right now. Because when we get anxious or overstressed, our thoughts tend to become catastrophizing. And something that I'm worried about that's small and manageable becomes, you know, large and life-ending and so I like to talk about the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique. And so, five things that you can see, and you just name those. Four things that you can feel. And you just name those. Three things that you can hear, two things that you can smell, one thing that you can taste, and it takes a minute to get through those, and it brings your focus back to the present. And there's, there's a lot of different grounding tools, but that one is a super easy one. And it's easy, I think because of the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 for individuals to remember.

Any additional advice about stress and anxiety?

Adam: Give me one last thing that you want everybody to know about stress and anxiety.

Melissa: You know, I think the most important thing to remember is it won't last forever. Individuals are capable. There are resources available, there is help available, and it can feel so debilitating when you're feeling these things. And I want individuals to know it won't last forever. And there are things that they can do to send their life in a different direction.

Adam: That's awesome advice. Thank you so much for being here today, Melissa. I really appreciate your insight. I appreciate your professionalism, and I think you, you at least taught me a lot of things about mental health and about stress and anxiety that I did not know. And I'm sure everyone else will feel the same way. And I look forward to us doing this again in the future. Uh, maybe we'll find some different things that we can talk about, you can tell me. And, uh,

Melissa: It was fun and I hope this was helpful. Thank you.

Adam: Thanks so much for stopping by The Search Bar. Like, comment, and subscribe so that you'll never have to search to find the next episode.

The views and opinions expressed in these episodes are strictly those of the host and guest speaker.