The terms “stress” and “anxiety” are frequently used interchangeably. However, these terms do have separate definitions, based on when the response is occurring in relation to the event. In other words, each is a response occurring at different points of time, to any given experience.
Stress – A temporary response to current circumstances that causes mental or emotional strain.
Example: Experiencing a motor vehicle accident (present)
Anxiety – A potentially ongoing sensation of uncertainty in response to imminent circumstances or past experiences.
Example 1: Riding with someone who is driving erratically (future)
Example 2: Worry or fear over an accident that occurred a week ago (past)
Though stress and anxiety are normal aspects of life, anxiety that continues for two weeks or more may be a symptom of a more serious mental health condition. Frequently, those who endure traumatic experiences may develop an anxiety disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in addition to the stress the event initially caused.
Stress is used in the term PTSD because the individual experiencing this disorder re-lives the event in the present moment, not just the fear of it occurring again in the future or the ongoing trauma from it occurring in the past. Those who suffer from PTSD, experience both stress and anxiety at the same time (past, present, future).
When stress and anxiety occur short-term and in mild to moderate levels, they can actually provide benefits to us. Research has shown that these responses can cause us to better react to circumstances we are currently facing or will face in the near future, and even provoke us to be proactive and be better prepared if they occur again.
Experiencing stress and anxiety in the short-term can help build our resiliency to challenges and setbacks that we all experience throughout our lives. When someone is confronted by difficult events that trigger stress and anxiety, the exposure to those events strengthens their resolve to endure and triumph over any future hardship.
This resilience means the individual will be less likely to feel overwhelmed or perturbed by obstacles they face. Even if success is not initially attained, a resilient person will continue to strive towards their goal because their past experience with stress and anxiety proved to them they can endure and overcome.
Clinical studies at Stanford University School of Medicine have shown that short-term exposure to mild or moderate levels of stress and anxiety can boost the immune system and speed up recovery time, due to the increase in stress hormones. A prolonged exposure has been shown to do the exact opposite – suppressing the immune system and creating greater risk for infection, as well as increasing the risk of heart disease and even cancer.