What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
Anxiety UK describes stress as, “…the feelings that people experience when the demands made on them are greater than their ability to cope.” They describe Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) as, “..the thing that .makes GAD different from “normal worry” is that the worry is prolonged (it lasts for over 6 months), and the level of worry is out of proportion to the risk.”
I took pride in always feeling “stressed out”. I believed having high stress levels reflected success and importance. It was easier for me to think of myself as being stressed, rather than anxious.
I saw stress as a by-product of success. It was short, sharp and exciting. When I felt the most stressed, it often lead to an achievement in my professional or personal life.
I understand now that I was using stress to mask my anxiety. I didn’t want to labelled as “anxious”. Anxiety was for the weak; it was a perpetual state of exhausting irrationality. I couldn’t see how I could be both anxious and successful.
Growing up, like most people with an anxiety disorder, I constantly heard “don’t worry” from well-meaning family and friends. Being a worrier was my accepted quirk and I took it seriously. I worried about my parents leaving me, about the food I ate, school tests I had to take, our house burning down in the middle of the night, and of course illnesses. Sometimes I could make myself physically ill from worrying, but more often it would climax in an emotional and draining outburst.
Only in hindsight does it seem abnormal.
As I moved into my 20’s and then 30’s, I was used to living with a somewhat constant state of unease. Mental illness wasn’t something I really acknowledged, much less understood. I believed people with mental illnesses were unable to function, took handfuls of pills that made them foggy and incoherent, or wandered around shouting at themselves. In many ways, I could cope better as an adult and disguise my bad days as a “real sick days”.
My anxiety really took hold in my late 30’s. I will never forget lying on my couch, flattened by the aches and nausea that are common physical symptoms of anxiety, and thinking I was definitely going to die. An ad about anxiety medication came on the television and the voiceover listed the numerous ways anxiety could present itself. I remember thinking they were describing me. It was only a few seconds, but those seconds were the start of me legitimizing my illness.
I realized that my anxiety was bigger than me and I needed to ask for help.
I struggle not to compare myself to others suffering from a mental illness. There are so many different illnesses and everyone copes and reacts differently. Even just with anxiety, what triggers one person won’t bother another. I can speak confidently in front of large groups of people, but fall apart at the slightest perceived change in my body. I know other people who throw up at the thought of public speaking, but won’t visit a doctor until one of their limbs is practically falling off.
It’s even harder not to compare myself to people without a mental illness. Over the years, my family and friends have faced challenges that have left me secretly quaking with fear. I have been awestruck by their perseverance and courage. The part of me that is always scared knows I couldn’t cope with even half of their strength. These are often the same people who have embraced me and my anxiety with compassion.
What right do I have to feel constantly anxious about things that will very likely never happen? How can I make myself so upset about imaginary illnesses when so many people I love are battling real illnesses? How can I waste so much of my health worrying when there is so much life to be lived? These are some of the most shameful, and difficult, things about living with my anxiety.
Living with anxiety has been a slow acceptance that there is no normal. I have learned to redefine success and understand that anxiety doesn’t make me weak.
About Erin Hallett
Erin Hallett is a higher education professional living in London. Originally from Victoria, British Columbia she moved to London in 2015 to pursue her dream of an international career. Erin is passionate about writing and hopes to use her voice to raise awareness for mental health issues.