Defin­ing Dis­tress

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Cover Story -

We of­ten use the terms “worry,” “stress” and “anx­i­ety” in­ter­change­ably, but they aren’t the same. Each has unique qual­i­ties and iden­ti­fy­ing which one is plagu­ing us will help us bet­ter ad­dress it. Reg­is­tered psy­chol­o­gist Kristin Buhr, a di­rec­tor at the North Shore Stress & Anx­i­ety Clinic in North Van­cou­ver and co-au­thor of The Worry Work­book, breaks down the dif­fer­ences.

Worry is a neg­a­tive thought you have about an un­cer­tainty in life. Wor­ries tend to fo­cus on the as­sump­tion that some­thing neg­a­tive will come from fu­ture events or from the out­comes of oc­cur­rences that hap­pened in the past.

Stress in­volves your re­ac­tion to pres­sures placed on you. You feel spread thin or are over­whelmed be­cause life is de­mand­ing too much of your lim­ited time, en­ergy or some other per­sonal re­source. While wor­ries are thoughts, stress is a feel­ing.

Anx­i­ety is your men­tal and phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­sponse to a per­ceived threat. It’s like the body’s smoke de­tec­tor—it senses dan­ger and sig­nals your body to rev up to deal with it. While worry takes place only in the mind, anx­i­ety can have phys­i­cal ef­fects, like speed­ing up your heart rate. Worry can, how­ever, trig­ger anx­i­ety when your mind per­ceives imag­ined “what ifs” as real threats.

While worry, stress and anx­i­ety are nor­mal, in­tense and fre­quent anx­i­ety can be­come a prob­lem. You might have an anx­i­ety dis­or­der if, for in­stance, you have re­cur­ring sleep is­sues or you’re skip­ping out on your cus­tom­ary ac­tiv­i­ties. Ex­ces­sive anx­i­ety can be fo­cused on a fear of some­thing spe­cific, like so­cial gath­er­ings (known as so­cial anx­i­ety) or a host of ex­pe­ri­ences (known as gen­er­al­ized anx­i­ety dis­or­der).

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