It’s no secret that we tend to use prefabricated phrases to express ourselves. Lately, I’ve heard many people claiming that something is “making them seriously anxious”, and it makes me wonder if they really know what that means. It’s easy to confuse anxiety with stress, since both can produce the same symptoms, but actually, they are quite different terms that originate from different causes. While it’s true that both, anxiety and stress are quite common ailments, it’s important to note that one is caused by a reaction of our body to certain circumstances, while the other derives from a mental issue that has its roots in internal and a bit more serious issues. So, how can we differentiate them?
One of the best movies that really helped me understand emotions and how we deal with them is Inside Out (2015). I know it may sound silly because it’s a children’s movie. However, it has a very intelligent background with strong psychological basis. In case you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and go watch one of the greatest animated films of the past years. The main characters of the movie are the five main emotions we all have. In this case we see how they react in the life of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who has to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. As the preteen navigates this external, as well as internal changes, there are some emotional rollercoasters that will change the way these characters manage to keep her sane. Although the movie focuses on the struggle between Joy and Sadness and their importance in Riley’s life, the other three emotions are very interesting as well. Going back to our theme, I also thought that stress and anxiety are somehow linked, if not the same, but the movie can give us some insight on the nature of these conditions.
These five characters represent each emotion, and of course, they’re taken to an extreme. The way they coexist creates a perfect balance of emotional health. However, any situation can make each of them explode or take control for a moment. Now, there are two characters we can use to understand a little bit more stress and anxiety: Fear and Anger. The first one is a squalid and fearful purple character that helps Riley with her sense of precaution, but also represents all the fears (obviously) we can have in life. Being some sort of archetype, he’s clearly way too exaggerated and shows, most of the times, that his attitudes are grounded on irrational issues. Anxiety could be simply defined by this character: it’s produced by constant fears, most of the time unfounded ones, that create a sense of unease and worry. We can’t really say where these fears come from, but we know they make us feel bad. On the other hand, Anger, the little red explosive character, is the best to represent stress. Unlike anxiety, stress triggers our rage and frustration. When things happen differently than planned or when we have a problem we feel unable to solve, anger tends to block us from looking at different solutions. It’s the frustration and impotence that lead to stress.
Now, let’s leave these characters aside for a bit and focus on other important differences between these terms. As I mentioned, the origins of these emotions are not the same. When we feel stressed we know exactly what’s causing it: it’s a particular problem or situation we seem unable to solve. Anxiety, on the other hand, comes from something inside us that we feel we can’t control and, more importantly, whose origins we seem incapable of understanding. Well, at least without receiving therapy.
Now, how are they triggered? Well, basically stress is always produced by an external situation, something that happens in our life that takes us out of balance. It’s easier to deal with, since you know the cause of the problem and act upon it. More importantly, it’s a temporary condition. However, anxiety tends to be more complicated to treat, since it’s something we have in our mind and is not that easy to discover or trace the underlying origin. The only way to end with the situation, if there’s actually a way to do so, is through therapy. But it’s important to bear in mind that, while it can be treated, some types and degrees of anxiety can never be completely eradicated.
As the movie shows, it’s not a matter of differentiating terms and separating them as opposing issues. Severe stressful situations can trigger anxiety if we don’t deal with it on time. Still, the most important thing is to understand how our mind and body react to the uncertainty of life and learn how to deal with it. But most importantly, we really have to stop either demonizing mental illnesses or taking them lightly.