How can you tell whether what you feel is an anxiety disorder or stress?
Stress (shockingly) is brought on by the presence of stressors.
Typical stressors (or “Hassles of Daily Living” as I like to call them) include normal day to day stuff such as running late for work and missing every street light along the way, mild conflicts, having more school work to do than time will allow, and so on. A normal day includes occasional stressors. A bad day has a whole lot of them.
Atypical stressors are not the usual daily stuff and tend to be exceptionally stressful for most people. Examples include: deaths, major illnesses, divorces, and even things you might not expect like moving or getting married.
Someone can be walking around carrying a whole lot of stress at any given time and feel highly keyed up, agitated, burned-out, and anxious. It certainly may feel like an anxiety problem.
Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, are characterized by consistent and specific phobic reactions in response to specific triggering events. The anxious response tends to be absent or at least diminished when the triggers are not present. Stress, on the other hand, can follow you wherever you go.
That said, stress can make an anxiety disorder worse (or waken a dormant anxiety disorder) and anxiety disorders certainly can be stressful. Therefore, learning to manage your stress, even when confronting an anxiety disorder, can be very beneficial.
With exposure with response prevention therapy (the treatment of choice for anxiety disorders) you move towards what you are afraid of; towards the anxiety. With stress, you seek to decrease it so that your baseline distress improves even while you are facing your fears.
Eric Goodman, Ph.D.