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No, Being Stressed Isn't the Same as Having Anxiety

All I needed was some cough drops.

Allergy season in Alabama is no joke, especially for someone working in a call center all day. And allergy problems in my family are no joke. We keep the Sudafed and Claritin folks in business twice a year. Around the exterior of my house, everything is covered in an all-familiar yellow devil dust. I hate pollen.

I told my boss I would be right back and left work on my lunch break with plenty of time to run to the gas station around the corner. While I was there, I figured it was a good time to fill up the gas tank, considering I was below “E.” I pulled up to the pump, got out, swiped my debit card and the message of death appeared on the screen, “See Cashier.” So inconvenient.

I headed inside, picked up those menthol cough drops I so desperately needed, and headed to the cashier. I explained the situation, told her I had already checked the banking app on my phone and there was no reason for it to be declined. I swiped it again and entered the PIN. Declined. “Try credit,” she said. Declined again.

My frustration was boiling, but in my gut, I knew I must have been hacked. I called the bank and of course, “Please continue to hold. We value your patience. Someone will be with you in 15-20 minutes.”

The bank is about two miles away, but I had to have some answers… and some money. Long story short, I was right. Hacked for the second time since October. There’s not much in life that is a bigger inconvenience. Plus, I hate that feeling of being violated.

These are the days when it’s most difficult to extend grace. When I’m driving back to work, tight-chested, stressed to the max and hungry. I knew I wouldn’t make it back in time for a midday meal and low blood sugar is my worst enemy.

But this is stress. This is not anxiety.

I didn’t need to take a Xanax. I wasn’t feeling tight shoulders or shallow breaths. I was just stressed. Not to mention hungry and a little pissed. This is normal life. This kind of thing happens to all of us sometimes. Things don’t go as planned and we hit a pothole. Everyone has had a flat tire or an overheated car on the way to an important meeting. But that’s not anxiety.

Anxiety doesn’t only hit on the side of the road. Sometimes it strikes during happy hour with your friends or at the exact moment your co-workers are laughing at an apparently hilarious joke. Anxiety is  crying in your car after dropping off the kids at school or knowing what it feels like to cry in the shower so no one hears your sobs.

Living with anxiety means secretly rejoicing when other people have their own problems to talk about, so you don’t have to share your own. You hide, silently isolated, pretending to care about the struggles of the whole damn world, as long as you can remain anonymous in your own suffering. It means you sometimes smile at a friend, wishing they knew you were dying on the inside, and equally thankful they are unaware.

For someone living with anxiety, it is a daily battle just to change out of your pajamas, stand at the front door, peer out the window and wait for just the right moment when no one else is in sight, so you can make the trek to the mailbox and not have to interact with another human being.

Living with anxiety means living with the constant fear that you’ll feel this way for the rest of your life. It means you look in the mirror, and as bad as you want others to see you as a person, all you can see is your own misery. Your diminished self-worth is based on the fact that you not only feel crazy, but you believe you are crazy.

Living with anxiety is stressful. People who know your diagnosis ask how you’re doing and you nearly have a panic attack because you don’t know how to adequately explain something you don’t even understand yourself. It’s exhausting fighting with your own head.

Living with anxiety is one of the most courageous things a person can do. Your mind writes a story that would make any “normal” person weep, but you live with it every moment of every day, because you know the only other alternative is a far less-happy ending.

Stress tends to be more temporary and can often be used as a motivator. While anxiety, with its paralyzing lies and pressures, is a smothering blanket. It’s important to know the difference between stress and anxiety because it helps know how to best care for ourselves, when to ask for help and how to spread further awareness to fight the stigma of mental illness.

While we may not be able to prevent stress or anxiety from showing up at inopportune times, a great place to start is by taking a deep breath and remembering we don’t have to have it all together all the time. Or even some of the time. The best thing we can do is live honestly with ourselves and give others the space to do the same.

Editor’s note: Not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way.

Follow this journey on I Am Steve Austin. Click here to sign up for his free self-care e-book.

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