Stress, Anxiety and Phobias
Although similar, stress and anxiety are two separate emotions and feelings that can be triggered by different sources. It can be difficult to tell the physical and emotional symptoms apart however.
The main difference between stress and anxiety is that stress is a response to a threat in a situation, and anxiety is a reaction to the stress.
Stress is primarily linked to an outside source, such as an overload of work, expectations of a partner of family, or quite commonly, money issues. Stress however does tend to disappear once the situation is resolved. A person can feel stressed for the duration of a particular event, and then the emotion passes once the event is over.
For example, my son was taking his year 6 SAT exams this past week and was feeling a little stressed about them on Monday morning. He has now (thankfully!) completed all of his exams, and the feeling of stress is no longer with him.
Anxiety however can be a by-product of stress, and the key differentiator is that anxiety will hang around after the event is over and cannot generally be tackled by ‘rolling ones sleeves up’ and facing the source of the stress head on.
As the National Institute of Health's U.S. National Library of Medicine says, "Stress is caused by an existing stress-causing factor, while anxiety is stress that continues after the stressor has gone”.
Stress itself is not a simple emotion to experience. There are different kinds of stress, with different levels of severity that can have both a positive and negative effect.
We all need a certain amount of stress in our lives to be motivated, and this encourages us to get out of bed in the morning and do what we need to do to survive (here the stressful feelings come from the thought of notdoing those things).
But chronic, or acute stress can have a very negative effect on us both physically and emotionally, contributing to such diseases as cancer or diabetes (among others).
There are 6 main types of stress, and each may have their own origin and present themselves in different ways:
Hypostress – is a type of stress that can be born out of boredom, or the feeling of being underutilized or unstimulated
Eustress – is a positive feeling of stress, which has a stimulating effect and helps things like deadlines to be achieved or races to be run
Acute stress – is the most common type of stress that we know, and can come from general demands or pressures that we have recently experienced, or and expected to experience in the near future.
Episodic stress – is a longer term feeling of stress that can lead to detrimental physical effects.
Chronic stress – is the most serious and long lasting type of stress that has been linked to severe medical conditions
Traumatic stress – is the result of intense acute stress. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) would fall into this category.
Anxiety however, is the feeling (or collection of feelings) that we sense or predict fear.
Anxiety can be a byproduct of feeling long term stress. As mentioned previously, when we are feeling anxious, it may not always be obvious to pinpoint what the cause of the anxiety is.
Evolutionarily speaking, humans have developed the ability to experience anxiety as a survival instinct or coping mechanism. Often known as the ‘fight or flight’ (or else ‘fight, flight or freeze’) response to a situation that may seem daunting.
Our earliest ancestors learnt to feel (or sense) anxiety to warn them of danger. We all experience an uncomfortable feeling of danger, or severe discomfort when we are faced with a ‘anxious’ situation. In that moment, our bodies must prepare themselves to act. Physical activity will take place, where more blood is pumped to the muscles in the legs and arms, preparing us to either run away or fight the danger.
In the modern world, it is not so easy to be able to do either of these things. If we are confronted by a colleague, manager or family member, then we may not always have the choice to either fight or run away without fairly severe consequences!
Anxieties may also be learned behaviours or inherited.
Phobias can also linked to stress and anxiety, and it is again important for the therapist to discover if there is an underlying cause of a persons phobia.
Phobias such as a fear of spiders or heights may be learned behaviours (for example, if a parent shows fear of spiders or heights, then a child may pick up on these), or they could be linked to a traumatic experience linked with the subject of the phobia, or they may be a perfectly natural reaction to the environment.
Phobias such as agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) or enochlophobia (fear of crowds) are more likely to be linked to stress or anxiety. For example, a person may have a fear of crowds due to a social anxiety, which in turn could be caused by bullying, family conflict or sexual abuse.
If it is determined that the root cause of the phobia may be linked to a deeper stress or anxiety issue, then it would almost certainly be appropriate to treat that cause instead.