What's the difference between stress and anxiety? Answers to this question can be a bit unclear and the line between the two can be blurry, but it is important for both health professionals and our clients to understand the differences so that we can figure out the best way to effectively work together. Being on the same page helps create the right expectations and sets up clear paths for referrals when needed.
One way to distinguish between anxiety and stress is that anxiety interferes with daily functioning and doesn't fade into the distance when life's challenges go away, whereas stress is a response to the challenges of the situation at hand. That said, just because stress is related to our current challenges doesn't mean that these challenges are short-term and then magically disappear. When challenges persist, as with ongoing financial problems, child care concerns, or a serious illness, we experience what is called chronic stress, which can affect our physical health. A great way to deal with chronic stress can be to work with a health coach who understands both the effects of chronic stress on your health and how to build healthy stress management habits.
Another important distinction between anxiety and stress is that anxiety is a clinical concern treated by mental health professionals, whereas stress is a normal part of life that you can address on your own or with a coach. If you feel like you are having difficulty controlling worry, that the worry is disproportional to the events that you are experiencing, or that your worrying is causing significant impairment in your social life, at work, or in other important areas of functioning, then the best person to contact is a mental health professional.
For health coaches, like me, understanding these difference helps us determine whether a client falls into our scope or practice or whether we should refer them out to someone who would be a better fit. For someone with chronic stress or who is concerned about the impact of stress on their health, I have lots of tools to help. For someone with clinical anxiety, I am not the right person for the job, and I would refer this client out to a mental health professional.
Additionally, knowing these differences helps health professionals focus our expertise. If I know where the line is between stress and anxiety, then I can draw a boundary around my expertise and focus my continued learning on stress management and the effects of stress on physical health rather than on anxiety and clinical mental health concerns.
The line between stress and anxiety is not always a clear one, but the more attention that we pay to their differences, the more likely it is that health professionals will be working with people that fit their expertise well and enable our clients to get the best care and support possible.