The term stress is so often used interchangeably with the term anxiety, but they describe very different emotions.

Anxiety is an internal state of mind. We can wake up in the morning feeling incredibly anxious for no reason we can pinpoint – this is one of the less fun aspects of autism, for so many of us. Many people who are not autistic suffer from anxiety too. Anxiety gives us that feeling of dread, impending doom, even if we can’t quite isolate why we feel like that. Anxiety tends to be enduring. Those who suffer from panic attacks, are experiencing anxiety. It is often the fear of what might happen – the dread – that is at the root cause.

Stress, on the other hand, tends to relate to a specific and comparatively brief external event. If we have a job interview, a speech, a wedding, an appointment with a doctor, a trip on an unknown route – all these and more are actual events that commonly result in stress for a lot of people. It’s possible for continuing stress to lead to anxiety. If the original stressor has long gone but we still feel ill at ease, this suggests we have now moved on to experiencing anxiety – the sensation has outlived the original external event – and that’s much tougher to deal with.

Both stress and anxiety can cause the following, to name just a few symptoms:

  • Insomnia
  • Jumpiness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Aches and pains, including headaches and migraines
  • Gastro-intestinal upsets
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweatiness
  • A feeling of unease
  • Perseveration
  • Feeling sleepy for no apparent reason
  • Feeling short-tempered, depressed, anti-social, out of sorts
  • Fear, self-doubt, paranoia and overwhelm

The sensations are very similar for anxiety and for stress. The difference is that stress can be resolved. When those appointments/events are over, or when we’re at the events and realise they’re actually going to be fine, the stress often dissipates – all that build up and then it’s just gone.

Anxiety, being internalised, is much harder to tackle. There is often no evident reason for it, but the symptoms are as disabling as those endured when stressed. What makes anxiety so tough to handle is that, because it is an internal state, we have no idea if and when it will ever leave us.