One of my pet peeves is when people use the words stress, worry and anxiety interchangeably. I’m not just being nitpicky — there are some important differences to note, and these differences are helpful for those of us wondering if (or when) we need to get professional help for ourselves or our children.
What is Stress?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Every type of demand or stressor — such as exercise, work, school, major life changes or traumatic events — can be stressful.” Who among us doesn’t complain about being stressed? We all do.
What we often forget or don’t even realize is that stressors aren’t always negative. They actually can be positive or neutral, like getting married, going away to college, or getting your taxes done. The stress of doing well on a test, for example, can push our children to study harder.
Stress also is something that’s dose-dependent (much like anxiety). As is the case with most things, its influence depends on balance. For example, I function at my best when I’ve reached my personal sweet spot of having just enough stressors to push my performance but not too many that I feel overwhelmed. When I don’t have enough to do, I don’t function as well (too much time for my mind to wander), and when I have too much to do, my attention to any one thing suffers. When we’re out of our sweet spot, we need to stop and reevaluate. Our success depends on our mindset.
The same is true for our children. When our kids say, “I’m so stressed out,” we can take the opportunity to help them prioritize the demands that are competing for their attention. Helping them find their own stress/performance sweet spot will help them better handle stress throughout their lives.
What is Worry?
Worry is part of the human condition — especially for a parent. Worry is a cognitive process and happens in the higher part of our brains. Worry is an active process: it’s the thinking, imagining, “what if” part of our brains.
Like stress, worry isn’t always negative and is dose-dependent. It’s my worry about my child’s safety in a car that prompts me to make sure he/she is properly restrained before we start driving. Excessive worry, however, refers to thinking that we can’t shut off. Think of a hamster wheel. If it causes physical symptoms or interferes with your functioning and doesn’t lead to problem solving, seeking help is a good idea.
What is Anxiety?
I don’t know about you, but I find I’m always seeing articles and posts about kids and anxiety. In fact, I recently searched Google, and all sorts of things popped up: anxiety disorders, strategies every parent should know, headlines about “the rising epidemic of anxiety in children and teens,” and “the decline of play and rise in children’s mental disorders…” Quite frankly, I noticed myself feeling anxious after reading them! But what was missing from my search was anything normalizing anxiety as a basic emotion we all face and, in the right dose, a very helpful one.
Typically, when we’re talking about anxiety, we’re talking about the physical sensations that are triggered by the lower, more primitive part of the brain called the amygdala. Anxiety is your body’s alarm system, and its job is to be on alert for danger. When all systems are firing normally, the alarm doesn’t go off very often, but when it does, the feelings, sensations and experience pass well within an hour or so.
When our kids say, “I’m so anxious about [xyz],” sometimes they’re really worrying about it. A common phrase out of my youngest’s mouth is “I’m so anxious that I’m going to get a zero on this project.” What she’s really saying is that she’s worried she’ll get a zero, because worry is a thinking process. It’s all her “what if” scenarios playing out. This worry is causing her anxious sensations of butterflies, restlessness, and trouble sleeping. If my worry brain was as active as hers in these situations, I would feel anxious, too!
When we worked on changing how she approached her thinking, the anxiety lifted: “My worry brain is telling me I’m going to get a zero, but I don’t have to listen to it. I’ve done really well on all my work up until now, so chances are good that I’ll pass.” Once she shifted her thinking, both her worry thoughts and her anxious feelings went away.
We all experience anxious feelings and sensations, and like all emotions, it’s temporary in its typical form and in response to a situation. In that situation, we may feel physical symptoms like sweaty palms, butterflies in our stomach, headache, and/or tightness in our throat or chest. We also may experience racing thoughts full of worry. All of this is normal, like a wave or a storm — the key is to let the emotions peak and pass without making them worse.
When the alarm gets stuck, however, and goes off all the time for things that are not emergencies (like saying the wrong thing in a text message or not being able to sleep) and/or lasts for hours, that’s when we say there’s a problem. This is when we want to seek professional help. More times than not, our worry sets off the alarm, so targeting an overactive worry system is necessary.
Awareness is always the first step. If this sounds like something to which you can relate, I encourage you to get in touch with me. You don’t need to do it alone.
Joanna Hardis, LISW, is a cognitive behavioral therapist in Shaker Heights. Connect with her on Instagram and Facebook. Or learn more about how she can help you and your family at joannahardis.com.