Stressing the difference

On My Mind


I remember being terrified my first day of preschool, screaming and crying, dragging my fingers across the pavement in an effort to avoid the crowd. I felt as if the ground was being torn out from beneath me. It was me, face streaked with tears, against a tiny wall of well-adjusted children already making friends on the playground. The threat of talking to my unknown classmates loomed over me, locking me between my dad’s ankles. He pushed me forward, and I braced against him, climbing him like a monkey.

Fear pulsed through my veins like molten lead as we moved closer and closer to the other students. Their eyes and noses came into focus, pointing at me like old fingers. It was as if I were a magnet, repelled from my classmates by some incredible force and then, all of a sudden, drawn to them like flies to their fluorescent deaths. I remember being forced to introduce myself to another student, my heart pounding out of my chest and my fingers curled around oversized sleeves.

I have experienced anxiety my whole life, as rolling waves of tension that sometimes do not relent. I am controlled by an unbearable sense of doom about the future and frozen in place by an overwhelming physical tension. For me, anxiety is something that interferes with my daily life — holding me back from obligations out of fear and self-consciousness and polluting my brain with negative thoughts and ruminations. It has manifested itself in different ways: in panic attacks before soccer games, a debilitating fear of germs and social anxiety that causes me to dread every interaction.

Anxiety is a mental-health condition that affects how an individual behaves because of feelings of fear, apprehension and worrying. Stress is different. Stress is not an abnormality, but rather an essential component of human life. In the past, stigma has prevented dialogue about anxiety. But recently, the frequent misuse of the terms “stress” and “anxiety” has helped to normalize conversations about these experiences.

Stress is what allows us to navigate potential threats and to have the motivation to complete difficult assignments under pressure. Physically, stress is exemplified through low energy, headaches, weakened immune system, tension, nervousness, shaking and many other effects. Yet, though these symptoms may be uncomfortable or even unbearable at times, they are necessary and even commonplace.

Today’s fast pace and competitive system of education, however, have increased both the frequency and severity of stress on individuals. Almost half of the students surveyed said they felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year, according to the 2013 National College Health Assessment.

The growth of stress has brought attention to the fine line between stress and anxiety. The relationship is further complicated because stress can cause anxiety. Anxiety is a result of the way one copes with stress. It is the body’s way of dealing with a stressor that is perceived as too severe. Anxiety is recurring. It does not need to be triggered (though it can be), unlike stress, which is always prompted by a precipitating event. Though the symptoms overlap, the two conditions are different in their length and cause, with the frequency of anxiety causing it to be labeled as a disorder rather than just a temporary state (such as stress).

Because the term “stress” is so commonly falsely interchanged with anxiety, the state associated with anxiety has been normalized in modern society. Rather than looking at anxiety as a shameful disorder, it is now perceived as much more common and “normal,” allowing those who experience some form of stress or anxiety to more openly talk about their experiences. In this way, the misuse of “anxiety” creates a sense of unity among sufferers.

Yet the use of “anxiety” to refer to lower levels of stress can also be isolating for those whose anxiety disorder is debilitating; for them it may be harder to push through the condition — and upsetting to see those with “anxiety” having different experiences. I have experienced this myself — listening to my friends describe their “anxiety” about upcoming midterms while I brace for the night’s panic attack. Because I cannot relate to their experience and they cannot relate to mine, I end up feeling alienated and alone. It is difficult to make the distinction between “stress” and “anxiety” when the terms are so interrelated and codependent, and it is even more difficult to determine whether the use of either term is “right” or “wrong.”

Isabel Lichtman writes the Thursday blog on mental health. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @isabellichtman.