The difference between stress and anxiety

Clinical Psychologist Lynn Jenkins explains the physical and emotional differences of anxiety and stress and how to manage them.
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Clinical Psychologist Lynn Jenkins is one of our amazing Healthy Mummy wellness experts. In a recent podcast, she discusses the difference between stress and anxiety.

I don’t know about you, but lately (say, the past two years of the pandemic) I’ve felt an unhealthy amount of stress, anxiety and generally things just seem to be hectic in my life.

My mum friends are signing up to meditation apps, people are resigning from work due to stress and even though life is somewhat appearing as though it’s back to normal, I’m more stressed out than ever before!

This term ‘stressed out’. What is it? How does it differ to that deep feeling of shortness of breath or panic when another bill looms its ugly head and demands payment.

Are you experiencing anxiety and not stress. Or is it neither or both? Stress and anxiety can work in mysterious ways in our bodies and it’s important to know the difference in order to know how to manage them.

Same Same but different

Before we discuss the difference between stress and anxiety, the first step to truly understand how they differ, is to first understand their similarities. The similarities between stress and anxiety from a psychological perspective are that they are both:

  • A common nervous system reaction
  • A perception of an experience in our body
  • The same point of intervention

From a body feeling point of view, stress and anxiety feel the same in that they are a ‘heightened’ feeling; everything feels faster or pressured. This felt experience manifests when our body is trying to protect itself. In this situation, the same neuro chemicals are being released from the brain.

This experience also means our protection system switches on. The funny thing is though, this protection system (you may know it as flight or fight mode) is only a perception of what is really happening.

Stress might feel more sudden, and anxiety might feel more familiar as there have probably been previous real-life experiences that have led to the same beliefs being triggered and therefore the same thoughts being triggered.

To understand stress vs anxiety in simple terms…

  • STRESS = a perception of our perceived capacity to deal with something. Eg. My workload is too big, and I can’t manage it.
  • ANXIETY = a perception of a fear or threat. E.g. My boss is going to have a go at me for not finishing my work.

Stress is influenced by lifestyle changes

In a parenting scenario, we might feel stressed if we are late for an appointment or work, our six year old has decided he won’t put his shoes on. The clock is ticking, our three year old can’t decide what to wear. The clock is ticking, and our newly dressed-and-ready-to-go newborn just did an explosive poo that poured into every crevice of their leg folds and up their back.

Argh, this is too much! Comes the cry of an everyday, genuinely trying mum.

This is stress.

The predominant thoughts in this scenario are things like… ‘This is too much; I can’t do it. How much is going to get thrown at me?’ Our perception is testing our ability to cope with an external situation.

Stress is more to do with our workload and our ability to deal with it. In these moments, it helps to show ourselves compassion. That is, saying and doing an ‘action’ that has the aim of helping ourselves.

For example, we can encourage ourselves to say things to ourselves like… ‘This is hard, but I’m going to get through it. I can deal with this. Tomorrow will be easier – lightening doesn’t strike twice and if it does, this too shall pass’.

Anxiety tends to be a bit more difficult to influence

Anxiety can be a little trickier as it relies on our ability to send a safer message (about what we are anxious about) to our brain. This can be super hard to engineer at the drop of a hat.

If, in the same scenario, we are plagued with thoughts like – people are going to think I am not coping; they will think I am not good enough; what if this is how it is going to be every time I need to go out?!?; what if the kids tell their teachers I yelled this morning?!?!

This is anxiety.

The predominant thoughts here have a component beyond our ability to cope. In the above anxiety scenario, it can also extend to a fear of others thinking ill of us, what is termed social anxiety.

Anxiety thought styles

There are many anxieties that can arise during experiences like these and how they occur depends on the thought style that we are experiencing.

Anxious thoughts usually have ‘roots’ that stem from a deeper belief that speaks to our dominant internal dialogue, e.g., ‘I’m hopeless, I am not a good enough mother, I’m a failure’.

This is a perception that has been formed by the gurgling of our subconscious undercurrent that the current situation has triggered. The perception is often ‘imagined’ or ‘created’.

A simple self-check in

Now that you have a grasp of the main differences (and similarities) between stress vs. anxiety, it’s important to know how they can both present in your everyday life. Keep an eye out for warning signs and observing any changes to ‘your normal’ stress levels is vital.

STRESS – Is it really happening? Yes! This is full on right now!
ANXIETY – Has this happened yet? No! I am thinking about what might happen
STRESS – Would most people think this is a BIG workload? Yes! Who wouldn’t!?
ANXIETY– Am I doing enough? No! You’re a freakin’ failure.

Whether it is anxiety or stress that we feel, the bottom line is to remind yourself that the point of intervention is the same: at the ‘perception’ level.

A final tip

If it is too hard to change our perception, then what we can do is temporarily change where we are putting our attention. That is, sometimes it comes down to keeping our attention shining on the perception that is causing a feeling of anxiety or stress, OR, choose to shine it/divert it to something, anything, that doesn’t send the ‘threat’ message to our brain.

There are endless choices here: a tree, your hand, your breath, a piece of clothing, etc., etc.,.

We have more power than we realise by knowing we can choose to place our attention or wherever we choose. Give it a go! Even getting a tiny bit of relief is worth it!

Find you inner calm with our 3 day anxiety program

Our Anxiety Program looks at the whole picture and allows you to nurture your body with mood-boosting foods while using simple breathing and movement techniques to find a sense of calm in your busy world.

Our comprehensive 3 day program, will provide you with:

  • Meal plans for simple nutritional swaps to improve physical wellbeing, including recipes for 3 main meals & 3 healthy snacks per day
  • Guided breath-work programs designed to decrease heart rate, improve blood flow and improve mental clarity to combat the negative effects of stress and anxiety
  • Guided Yoga, Pilates & Meditations to regulate brain chemicals and boost endorphins through mindful movement so you’ll feel better in your body
  • Podcasts from psychologists, nutritionists and naturopaths on understanding anxiety, it’s connection to diet and on regulating your inner dialogue
  • Info-blogs from our expert Wellness Team, to help you understand where anxiety comes from and strategies to get back on top
  • Easy to follow 3 day program guides you on when to take each step to make things super simple and effective
  • Everything at your finger tips you can easily access the program from your Healthy Mummy account on your smart device


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