Do you know when you are stressed, or could you be anxious instead?  In the workplace, saying you are stressed is more “acceptable” than saying you’re anxious.  But there are vital differences which leaders need to be aware of for themselves and their colleagues.  Both are caused by our own thinking and “perceptions”, as in they are experiences we have decided in our own minds are concerning, and in many cases others wouldn’t react the same way.

Finding the right label can be the first step in determining how best to improve the situation. Below are the main differences:

  • Anxiety: panic, apprehensiveness, dry mouth, sweaty palms, performance anxiety, difficulty concentrating, pacing around thinking of what’s causing the anxiety.   Anxiety is caused by increased vigilance in situations that are perceived as threatening, when most people wouldn’t find it threatening.  Some will find ingenious ways to avoid the situations that have made them anxious in the past.
  • Stress: difficulty relaxing, impatient, easily reactive, intolerant of interruption and delay. People feel they have to get on with the task and don’t want people stopping them to ask questions. Many will become over-engaged in tasks as they feel there is no choice, it has to be done, no-one else can do it (and the time available can also feel too short).  Stress also reduces the links to your long term memory functionality, which is not useful for exams etc.

You’ll be surprised though, how many different experiences people have when they are anxious and stressed, and how different they are to your own.  As an experiment, take stock and write a list of your own symptoms of anxiety, acute stress (short-term) and chronic stress (long-term).  Then, get your colleagues/team to do the same – and notice how many variations there are.  This is important, so that you can recognise stress and anxiety in the workplace and not assume everyone will experience it the same way you do.


A previous article highlighted our ability to check our level of anxiety (looking for threats that aren’t there) and balance or adjust this in our minds by considering the positive and “rewarding” aspects of the situation. Some level of anxiety can be useful and channelled to our benefit i.e. it can be OK.  But when you are in anxiety overwhelm take a look at the recommendations for balancing out to the right level in the “Cocktail for Every Occasion”.


Studies around the resilience to stress has found that it relates to positivity i.e. people who are more positive about their experiences are less stressed.  Much of our stress-related perceptions are based on our past experiences and current events.  For example, how tired, hungry, cross or discontent we are in the moment will influence the degree to which particular events will make us feel stressed.  If we are energised, fully fed and content with life, difficulties affect us less.

To reduce stress it’s useful to start to think of other (and more positive) ways you may be able to think about the situation you are in and reduce the temptation to catastrophize. Could we be assuming a worse possible future for ourselves than is truly necessary?  Here are some useful techniques:

Visualisation:  including all day-dreaming.

Relaxation: What would nourish you?  Warm bath? Massage?  Walking in the countryside?  NB: Some people say they only have one way of relaxing and that’s to watch TV.  However, this is actually just a mild trance and after a while may not feel so great.

Contemplation: muse upon something positive.

Meditation: engaging in a process of thinking that allows thoughts to just come and go (also known as restful alertness). As an added benefit, this time gives the opportunity for reviewing and connecting important information which is vital for insight and creativity.

Research has also shown that resilience to stressful events is increased by successfully completing tasks that would be considered stressful.  People that take on challenges that stretch their comfort zone and, importantly, are supported to complete these, are likely to be less reactive to similar events in the future.  So setting the right level of challenge for individuals can increase resilience.

Next time you say you’re stressed, check that you actually are and then find ways to improve your resilience for now and the future.

Find out how self-awareness can help you further, contact us for an initial discussion.

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