The Faces of Stress and Anxiety

Given that a large percentage of our audience is in college, it’s safe to say that you, the reader, have experienced some sort of stress at some point in your life. Maybe you had three papers due in one day. Maybe you were confused and frustrated about your dating life. Maybe you were looking towards the future, and you couldn’t see what would happen in your life, which scared you. Maybe you felt as if your soul was so full that it couldn’t possibly hold anything else, and that your problems and worries were ready to spill out of your head and into the world around you. Regardless, you are not alone in this feeling.

And most likely, a smaller proportion of you have experienced anxiety. Anxiety, while similar to stress, is different in several critical ways. For one thing, it is utterly terrifying. Anyone who has experienced a panic attack can tell you that it feels like you are literally dying of suffocation.

Personally, I have experienced both stress and anxiety. I wanted to write this article for two reasons: principally, to inform you of the similarities and differences between stress and anxiety and secondly, to just be candid with you about my own experiences.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, stress is a response to a threatening situation, and anxiety is a response to the stress. Stress, while occasionally productive because it can motivate you to get work done or resolve a situation, can also be extremely detrimental when chronic, causing headaches, high blood pressure, and loss of sleep.

Anxiety can be categorized into four groups: 1). Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) 2). Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia (fear of crowded or public spaces) 3). Social Anxiety Disorder and 4). Specific Phobias. Most of the people I know who have anxiety—and it’s a lot more than you would likely suspect—have GAD or Social Anxiety. This categorization doesn’t mean that they are immune from getting panic attacks or that they are not irrationally afraid of airplanes.

According to the Anxiety Center, anywhere from 18% to 30% of adults in the world are affected by anxiety, so odds are that either you know someone who suffers from it or you do yourself. Additionally, for most anxiety disorders, women are almost twice as likely to be affected than men are.

Many of those who have anxiety are silent. For example, I could be hanging out with my friends, watching a movie and generally enjoying their good company, until I suddenly feel an attack coming on. And all at once, the world is spinning and I can’t breathe.

Once, when I was out with my mom and sister for dinner and a movie, I had a truly terrifying panic attack. There was this strange pain, sharp, like a scalpel slicing my collarbone, and I was breathing shallowly and running out of air. I eventually wound up in the ER at midnight, where they told me I had had a panic attack and that I should be fine in an hour or two. What was so incredibly wonderful though was that the staff did not attempt to trivialize it. The nurse on duty told me about his own experience with panic attacks and how the first time it happened to him, he thought he was having a heart attack and that he was going to die.

Stress is damaging, and can be extremely overwhelming for the person experiencing it, but the difference between stress and anxiety is that stress hasa public face. We recognize and understand stress in others, and we try to help each other out when we see the signs. Anxiety, on the other hand, is usually always private and happens in silence. Many don’t understand the characteristics and implications of anxiety, and so it occurs without being talked about.

So right now, I want to leave you with just one message: if someone confides in you about their struggles with anxiety, know that they trust you implicitly, and with that trust comes a responsibility on your part. Never, ever judge someone for baring their soul to you. Rather, ask them what you can do to help them or simply support them with your presence. Responding to anxiety with silence is one of the things that we as a society are entirely guilty of. You, the reader, have a responsibility to talk about these things that make you uncomfortable. So start today and be a friend.