Many people dealing with an anxiety disorder have dealt with the dismissive words “Everyone has anxiety.” But is this actually the case? Just what is the difference between stress, anxiety, and an anxiety disorder anyway — terms often dangerously used interchangeably in our culture.
It is safe to say that everyone has dealt with stress. Stress is caused by an external trigger- such as getting a poor grade at University or getting into a fight with someone important to you. Stress can also be caused by something long-term, such as dealing with a chronic illness or living in poverty.
No matter how often you deal with stress, it is an umbrella term for an emotional response due to a stressor. Under this umbrella, one can experience headaches, butterflies in your stomach, sadness, fear, or others.
Everyone has experienced stress because it is based on our evolution. In our history, if we were being chased by an animal, desperately needed to hunt to feed our family, or our tribe was under attack, we needed something to kick us into high gear. A stressor can activate the fight-or-flight response, where chemicals are released into our bloodstream that cause faster breathing and heart rate. Sugar hits the bloodstream to provide extra energy. We are ready to run away from, or fight, that stressor!
But in our modern world, oftentimes this mechanism that got us through the last hundreds of thousands of years is triggered when it doesn’t need to be. Surely the urge to run or fight doesn’t seem to help us as much when we have to give a speech, take a test, or deal with a move to a new city.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by excessive worrying that stays even without a stressor. The symptoms of anxiety and stress are nearly identical, but if you are dealing with anxiety, then the feelings are not tied to anything external. Unlike stress, anxiety can sometimes be a sign of something bigger.
If you are:
- Dealing with this anxiety for a long time
- These feelings are out of proportion to the situation
- You avoid situations that have the potential to make you feel anxious
- These feelings seem out of control
- And anxiousness is making it hard to enjoy life
…you might be dealing with an anxiety disorder. It is estimated that a little over 1 in 10 people in the UK have one of these.
Why would anxiety disorders evolve? Think of an anxiety disorder as “anxiety looking for a stressor” — these people are on high alert all the time. Many psychologists, therefore, think that those dealing with an anxiety disorder were the alarmists in our tribe — the first to alert the rest of us if we were under attack, in danger of running out of food, or our tribe was dealing with a deadly virus.
Today, stress can still be useful- we can channel that energy into writing the perfect speech before we go up in front of an audience, study hard for an upcoming test, or make sure we are all packed before we move. Additionally, many highly successful and even famous people deal with anxiety disorders, as they can learn to channel their anxiety into something they are passionate about.
But saying to someone dealing with stress, anxiety, or an anxiety disorder that “everyone has anxiety” does more harm than good. These feelings, whether caused by a stressor or not, have the power to wreak havoc on both our mental and physical health if not kept in check. Never be afraid to talk to a therapist or someone close (if it is safe to do so) if you think it might help you; you’re worth it.
Written by Mikaela Marinis
Mikaela is a computer science major and aspiring UX designer, with a deep passion for both psychology and computers. She has professional experience writing, and has been involved in multiple computer science and psychological studies. Mikaela also loves to volunteer as a crisis text counselor and help those in psychological distress.