Stress? What's in a Name?

Stress?  What's in a Name?

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Ques: I attended one of your talks recently and was wondering if there is a difference between stress and anxiety. They sound the same to me. Am I missing something?

You say tomato and I say to-mah-to


After giving a talk at a local university, I received this question and thought it warranted some face time here as I'm sure many of you may be wondering the same thing.  So, let's do a little myth busting on what differentiates simply being "stressed out" from the more burdensome experience of anxiety.  And by anxiety, I mean clinical Anxiety with a capital A.  This is multi-layered topic.  The onion of our work here.   For those of you short on time, I'll use an ice cream shop analogy here to offer up various scoops of manageable info for you.  The flavor choice is all yours.

The Kiddie cone:  Yes, there is a difference.  One begets the other.

The Small cone:  Chronic stress can play a significant role in pre-disposing someone to clinical Anxiety.  That said, stress is an everyday occurrence.  For most people, it's recognizable in light of certain situations. For example: I'm nervous about asking the cute boy out; my palms are sweating!  Or, gosh, I sure hope my jitters don't get in the way of my passing this driver's test--I need my license for my new job this summer.  Our feelings of nervousness are apropos for a given situation we are facing.  When we move into the realm of clinical Anxiety, our thoughts and concerns no longer seem to match our everyday experience; somehow they are escalated.  And further, without an obvious filter for understanding why, they can become disorienting, distracting and disabling.

The Medium cone:  OK, before we go any further, it might be important to now distinguish  common colloquialisms from scientific jargon.  When we suggest that we are "freaking out" over a situation, more often than not, we are referring to our emotional and/or mental state of being at that exact time.  We exclaim it as a way of conveying intensity to our willing audience--be they friends, mentors or family.  "Freaking out" can be good thing or undesirable right?  But what happens when our body doesn't seem to be acting the way we think it ought to be in a given situation?  For example, you find yourself studying late night for a calculus final and suddenly, without any rational reason, your heart starts racing and you feel like you can't catch your breath?  Or, you're with friends out in a noisy restaurant and out of nowhere, you suddenly feel light headed and like the walls of the bistro are closing in on you?  You run outside but you can't explain why.  This is no longer a time for common parlance.  Your body is unfairly rebelling without checking in with you first.  This of course brings you tremendous cause for concern because there is no readily identifiable root cause to your bodily symptoms.  You are experiencing a panic attack, one kind of Anxiety.  And, it's no joke.


Anxiety is a physiological and psychological wind fall.


"Freaking out" over a poor grade on a Chem. Lab is not the same thing as being in the physiologic state of HPA axis dis-regulation or in the heightened state of Sympathetic Nervous System arousal that accompanies Anxiety syndromes.  With Anxiety, there are multiple ways that the body may feel excessive nervousness, fright and extreme concern that may lead to constant rumination or other behaviors as a way to restore balance and alleviate the constant tension.  Anxiety is a physiological and psychological wind fall.  Are you beginning to see the difference?  Keep in mind that, the way we experience our world determines where we fall on the stress spectrum.  And this can either be motivating or it can be disabling.  And perhaps that is the crux of the problem:  our perceptions fuel our overall experience of stress and what becomes stressful for us.  Being human means we no longer simply operate from a purely instinctual place. Hence the importance of identifying the mind-body element when we address this topic.


Stress should be a powerful driving force, not an obstacle.
— Bill Phillips

The Large Cone:  First things first: stress is normal.  In fact, if someone were to say to me, I'm never stressed, I'd wonder what was wrong with them.  We do not live in a static world, so naturally our bodies (and minds) will have to make adjustments to the daily fluctuations we experience in order to maintain homeostasis.  Simply put, our bodies like to be in a state of balance. When it's 100 degrees and humid out, our bodies sweat to maintain consistent body temperature.  We perspire in response to our environment in order to survive the heat.  But what happens when our internal emotional thermometer is flying high because we've been scorned by our best friend?  Surely, this is not a true immediate life & death situation but this new found fr-enemy status sure *feels* like it.  We can all relate to this kind of social disruption.  And yes, from an evolutionary perspective, we are wired to seek our belonging and community so there is indeed some basis for our upset.  But here's the rub: it's our own internal perceptions about who we are and how the world is that actually dictates how stressful we find that last scenario.  Relationships change, some end; we all forge ahead and develop new ties to new people.  Staying mired in the anger and/or loss of a relationship contributes to an on-going, low grade stress response that in other animal species, likely would not exist.  And here's where we start to lay the foundation for a dys-regulation in our bodies' ability to maintain balance in our world.  Remember: the key is balance. 


Stress is an evolutionary adaption that innervates every cell in our body for survival.


The Banana Split:  Physiologically, a lack of balance in our bodies threatens our survival.  So we have a primitive part of our brain that is programmed to survey our world for anything that might serve as a cataclysmic disruption to that.  From an evolutionary perspective, this either came as an attack causing severe bodily harm or as tremendous loss of resources as in the example of a famine.  Our two options for preservation in these instances were to either: fight or flee the attacking tiger or shut down metabolically akin to going into hibernation.  See the polarity here?  Intense arousal for the fight of our life OR slowing down the whole body for a siesta. Either way, the body prioritizes survival above all else.  

And certainly we want this when we truly are in danger.  Climbing out of a burning automobile is a necessity.  Conserving energy and slowing down calorie burning when we are lost in the woods for days without food, both ensure your likelihood of living longer.  Fretting about career success due to a less than stellar grade on a Chem exam is not about survival (although it may feel that way).  But it's our fears about future responsibilities that keep us in a heightened state of stress activation.  Our capacity to conceptualize our future is both a blessing and a burden to our bodies which are still responding to a world that our modern era of technology has long superseded.  In short, our minds are living in a future moment and our bodies are responding to that future concern in the present.  Houston, we have a loss of harmony and balance.  And it is this imbalance, along with other factors (like poor nutrition, genetics, and beliefs as examples) that set the stage for clinical Anxiety to emerge in some people.  And as you can imagine, this absence of understanding why our bodies are reacting, only fuels the psychological underpinnings more so:  we fear for our lives and for our sanity.

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The Peppermint Tummy Tamer:  So we know we live in the modern era of chronic, low grade stress.  True famine is unheard of in the Western world.  Cell phones and GPS systems keep us connected when we might otherwise find ourselves astray.  Medical science re-attaches limbs and blood transfusions keep us afloat long enough for triage.  We are indeed living--surviving--longer than our pre-historic genes could ever have imagined.  What's replaced out deadly foes are our fast paced worlds for which we are not biologically designed.  Technology has given way to ever expansive expectations for achievement.  Our fears are centered around social standing, beauty and perfectionism.  All psycho-social goal posts for us to hurdle and move at whim.  

But we have at our disposal another adaptation that we under utilize because of our addiction to efficiency and speed: our Parasympathetic Nervous System.  The familiar Rest & Digest system from 8th grade science class.   It doesn't have a sexy name.  In health circles it's called the Relaxation Response; like something only lazy people might adopt.  But harnessing the power of this system my friends, will be your true life line to happiness, productivity, success and longevity.  In future posts we will give it the attention it deserves.  I think of it as the Fountain of Youth.  Because youth is when we live in the present (no worries!), are open to trying new things, think that that smallest wonders are in fact the biggest excitement and have boundless amounts of energy to explore.  Doesn't sounds much like relaxation to me, but then again what's in a name?

Now I'd like to hear from you!

Was this helpful?  Do you feel like you are worrying to much about the future?  How do you handle your stress on a daily basis?  Do you have feelings of anxiety?  Please share any insights in the comments below: