What’s the difference between stress and anxiety? 3 warning signs

Photo by Wadi Lissa

We live in a stressed and anxious world. Modern life is fast-paced and offers an unrelenting to-do list. So it probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that Americans struggle with anxiety more than any other kind of mental health challenge. Nearly 1 in 5 people have experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year and almost 1 in 3 will experience one at some point in their lives.[1]

With numbers this high, chances are that we are now talking about you, me, and our loved ones. Whenever families, classrooms, or youth groups gather, anxiety is in our midst.

Tweet: Whenever families, classrooms, or youth groups gather, anxiety is in our midst. Learn more about the difference between stress and anxiety, and get tips that can help. 

What exactly is anxiety?

Anxiety is different from typical everyday stress. Technically speaking, stress refers to our body being out of balance. When our physical body gets out of balance due to strong thoughts or emotions, we are stressed! What’s so exciting about stress is that it can be positive (like feeling so excited we’re speechless) or it can be negative (like being so fearful that we start trembling). Often it serves a really useful purpose of helping us to kick into gear when we tackle a tough assignment or enter “the zone” when it’s time to sink a free-throw. Growth means change, and nothing promotes change better than stress sending us a little bit off balance.

On the other hand, anxiety is about the way we respond mentally. Like stress, anxiety can sometimes be helpful: When the smoke alarm goes off or the dashboard of the car lights up, that sense of worry and preoccupation we feel helps us to make a good decision. However, for many of us, anxiety often starts to get in the way. Anxious perfectionism might lead to sleepless nights, withdrawing from friends, and a head full of “what-ifs.” When anxiety starts to produce repetitive and disruptive thoughts which make us want to avoid people or situations out of worry, we are entering the realm of anxiety disorders.

Although each is different, anxiety disorders share something in common: a mixture of anxious thoughts and bodily symptoms (like sweating, shortness of breath, and a racing heart) which all lead us to avoid the important things of life. Peer relationships, for example, are one of the most important things to every young person (whether they realize it or not). So when worries about having panic attacks, worries about what other people think, or worries about all the work that still needs to be done prevent young people from meaningful social connection, something is amiss.

It’s not always anxiety, but it might be

If you are worried about a young person in your life, here are some helpful signs to keep in mind:

Extreme worry. It’s reasonable to be concerned if a young person’s worry is out of proportion with the stressful situation—like being unable to sleep for several hours every night because they are reviewing all the social blunders of the day. Remember, “out of proportion” is relative. Think back to what was important to you as a young person!

Significant irritability and restlessness. When we get anxious and stressed, our body reacts with pumping energy throughout the body that can put us on edge. When there is no concrete problem to unleash this energy on, we can become restless and quick to anger. A young person might even be feeling some increased muscle tension that leads to complaints about neck pains or tension headaches.

Low energy and concentration. When a young person has been anxious for a while, it can wear them down and leave them feeling depleted. At this point it becomes difficult just to pay attention to conversations, teachers, or even TV.

Remember, these basic signs are by no means a diagnosis. But being on the lookout can help to identify when anxiety might be the culprit rather than “moodiness,” “hormones,” “rebelliousness,” or any of the common reasons we might give for teenagers’ emotional unsteadiness. Equipping ourselves with this knowledge can lead to deeper compassion and a readiness to connect young people with the help they need. 

How you can help

We designed Faith in an Anxious World to nurture new conversations in your ministry, giving young people practical faith practices to help them thrive even in the face anxiety. Nevertheless, there are times when anxiety can take hold and begin to get in the way of the life God has called us to. In these times, let’s show the compassion of Christ and support each other in getting the help we need. 

Sometimes that will mean having caring conversations with young people and their families as you encourage them to find a mental health professional who is best qualified to help them get back on track. While your options will vary widely depending on your location, here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind: 

  • As a ministry, cultivate trusting partnerships with local mental health professionals that you can rely upon and confidently recommend. 
  • Utilize websites such as psychologytoday.com (which allows you to filter by faith) or goodtherapy.org, where you can search and filter by insurance and other factors important to you. 
  • Look for licensed professionals only. This means they should have credentials like LMFT, LCSW, LPC, or LCP (sometimes psychologists only list their degree instead: Psy.D. or Ph.D.). 
  • Remember that a very significant part of therapy success is the degree of fit between client and therapist. If it doesn’t feel right after a few sessions, encourage families to try someone else.

Whether or not our anxious young people get connected to a therapist, we can commit to being there for them. By compassionately listening and affirming their struggles, we can offer them relationship and rest, and point them to the One who is a true refuge and solid ground.

Tweet: If you’re worried about a young person in your life, here are 3 signs they might be struggling with anxiety.

Faithful living in a stressful world

Our new 4-week multimedia curriculum will equip you with the tools you need to guide young people in your care, linking anxiety and depression with conversations about discipleship and faithful living. Together you’ll reflect on New Testament stories, watch Jesus enter into anxious situations with his disciples, and explore life in an anxious but hope-filled world.

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