Stress And Anxiety Difference
There’s a fine line between stress and anxiety. Both are emotional responses, but stress is typically caused by an external trigger. The trigger can be short-term, such as a work deadline or a fight with a loved one or long-term, such as being unable to work, discrimination, or chronic illness. People under stress experience mental and physical symptoms, such as irritability, anger, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive troubles, and difficulty sleeping.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. Anxiety leads to a nearly identical set of symptoms as stress: insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability. Both mild stress and mild anxiety respond well to similar coping mechanisms. Physical activity, a nutritious and varied diet, and good sleep hygiene are good starting points, but there are other coping mechanisms available.
If your stress or anxiety does not respond to these management techniques, or if you feel that either stress or anxiety are affecting your day-to-day functioning or mood, consider talking to a mental health professional who can help you understand what you are experiencing and provide you with additional coping tools. For example, a psychologist can help determine whether you may have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders differ from short-term feelings of anxiety in their severity and in how long they last: The anxiety typically persists for months and negatively affects mood and functioning. Some anxiety disorders, such as agoraphobia (the fear of public or open spaces), may cause the person to avoid enjoyable activities or make it difficult to keep a job.
Anxiety disorders are common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19% of Americans over the age of 18 had an anxiety disorder in the past year, and 31% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes.
One of the most common anxiety disorders is generalized anxiety disorder. To identify if someone has a generalized anxiety disorder, a clinician will look for symptoms such as excessive, hard-to-control worry occurring most days over six months. The worry may jump from topic to topic. Generalized anxiety disorder is also accompanied by the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Another type of anxiety disorder is panic disorder, which is marked by sudden attacks of anxiety that may leave a person sweating, dizzy, and gasping for air. Anxiety may also manifest in the form of specific phobias (such as fear of flying) or social anxiety, which is marked by a pervasive fear of social situations. Anxiety disorders can be treated with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
One of the most widely used therapeutic approaches is cognitive behavioural therapy, which focuses on changing maladaptive thought patterns related to anxiety. Another potential treatment is exposure therapy, which involves confronting anxiety triggers in a safe, controlled way in order to break the cycle of fear around the trigger.
What Is Stress?
Stress is the physical response to an uncomfortable or challenging situation. You may feel stress in your muscles, which tightens up, or your heartbeat, which may quicken. When you’re in a stressful situation, your body is in its fight-or-flight mode, and your breathing speeds up. These physical responses are the body’s way of protecting you from danger or injury.
To begin, stress is a short-term stimulus. A trigger causes your body to go into stress mode, and the stress response triggers bodily responses to counter the perceived danger. A friend calls and says, “I’ve got good news and bad news: I’m coming to see you and have to run an errand on your way.
The good news is, the kids are behaving and I won’t have to leave them home alone. The bad news is, the dog isn’t taking her daily crap in the backyard today. What do you want to do about it?” As a solution, our brains create a story to describe what’s happening. Our stress response is similar to how your mind creates a story to help you deal with a situation. While the stress response is usually a temporary response, there are situations in which the stress response has a lasting effect.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a mental state, much like sadness and happiness, that comes and goes, and that results from one of a variety of stressful events. The symptoms of anxiety and stress differently, but they both affect the brain. Signs of anxiety are distress, heart racing, muscle tension, dizziness, increased blood pressure, dry mouth, trouble breathing, heart palpitations, irritability, and muscle tension.
The key symptom of anxiety is fear, which can manifest as a “fight or flight” reaction. Your body goes into an anxious state as you try to balance out the harmful effects of the stressor. While you may be able to deal with a stressful situation mentally, you may develop physical symptoms, such as headaches, anxiety, or stomachaches.
Anxiety is often perceived as a specific emotion and it’s technically true that anxiety is a specific emotion, but it’s also part of the bigger concept of “anxiety.” Anxiety is the physiological state in which the nervous system is constantly in motion. Nervous systems are finely tuned for survival, and the signals they send are the basis for action.
Nervous systems are “on” most of the time, though they can be “off” briefly if there’s an external trigger or there are complications with the nervous system. When there’s no external trigger, nervous systems are often on and even sleeping; anxiety results from constantly being on, worried about things that haven’t even happened yet. Anxiety is important to understand because it reveals some of the basic building blocks of physical health.
How They Are Different
Stressful situations involve people outside of you (teammates, bosses, and clients, for example) and they require your effort to diffuse them. Whereas anxiety causes stress in you. It doesn’t require your attention, and you can generally escape it by thinking about it.
One reason anxiety often persists despite these efforts is that it keeps your mind on the source of stress — specifically, whatever is causing it — even if you don’t engage it directly. For example, in 2012, one study found that just imagining feeling stressed had similar effects on anxiety as actually experiencing stress. Anxiety is more difficult to get a handle on because there’s often no clear trigger.
For starters, stress doesn’t cause anxiety. Stress is the reaction to a stressor, such as feeling overwhelmed at work or suffering from chronic illness. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a symptom of stress; if you suffer from mild stress, it won’t make you anxious. Stressors and anxiety can be hard to differentiate.
Common examples of stressors and anxious situations include deadlines, performance reviews, children’s behavioural issues, job demands, relationships issues, and lack of money. Anxiety-producing situations include dealing with a dangerous situation, failure to meet a goal, and public speaking.
The most important difference between stress and anxiety is the way the brain responds. When you’re stressed, your brain increases the number of corticolimbic pathways, or nerve cells, in the prefrontal cortex that are responsible for regulating emotion and the physical body.
As a result, you become more calm, cool, and collected. It’s the same thing that happens when you lose your temper, but this time it’s the physical response that helps you regulate your emotions. When you’re anxious, on the other hand, the neurochemicals in your brain are less well-regulated. The hypothalamus and amygdala, the “fight or flight” centers in the brain, grow larger and more active. You may experience nausea, headache, dizziness, and shaky hands.
Coping Strategies For Stress
Physical activity. We all know that exercise is good for our health, and it can also be a great stress reducer. After moderate aerobic exercise, the body releases chemicals that lower blood pressure and boost the immune system. Many people find that after running or cycling, they feel less anxious and are less reactive to external triggers.
When you need to get away from the worries and the crazy thoughts, physical activity can provide a welcome change of pace. Try light yoga, walking, or dancing if you don’t want to push your boundaries. Research shows that dance can reduce symptoms of social anxiety in people with social phobia.
Working out. When our bodies are under stress, the body responds by releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream. This increases the heart rate, makes us feel panicky, and can even cause physical symptoms such as muscle cramps and fatigue. But when the body is under a sufficient amount of physical stress, we enter a “rest and digest” mode and our adrenaline levels drop.
This is the time to go for a long, leisurely run or a leisurely swim (something that’s not recommended while stressed or anxious). You can even do a slow cycle in the gym (15-20 minutes on the stationary bike at a low speed). Doing exercise with an end goal is more effective than not exercising at all, and it requires less willpower than forcing yourself to exercise when you don’t feel like it.
Anxiety is caused by changes in how the brain operates. Most people with anxiety fear the future, worry about things that haven’t yet occurred, and/or are unable to face a given situation. In response to anxiety, your brain reacts in several ways, including monitoring and assessing potential threats, being aware of potential threats and responding accordingly, attempting to suppress an emotion, and ruminating about an event or problem.
Research suggests that while you can manage anxiety with techniques that work on stress, you can also use them for calming down the brain’s anxious thoughts. These three coping mechanisms—listening to music, limiting stress through exercise, and eliminating a negative thought—can help relieve stress and anxiety.
Coping Strategies For Anxiety
Seeking social support. It’s important for both stress and anxiety to come from sources other than the individual, particularly if he or she is unable to cope alone. Social support can relieve stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions. As you might expect, the amount and quality of support vary by individual and by context, but support can be both emotional and practical.
It can help the person to feel better, improve their quality of life, and participate in meaningful activities. Identifying and decreasing the causes of stress. Just as with stress, the causes of anxiety vary from person to person, and one of the most common causes is the inability to deal with certain types of stress.
- Taking deep breaths
- Using positive words
- Eating well and exercising
- Mindfulness practices
Taking a slow, deep, and relaxing breath can have a relaxing effect on the nervous system and enhance coping skills. Focus on your breathing, feel it in your chest, throat, and stomach, then feel each of the four elements of breath: the in-breath, the out-breath, the base breath, and the inspiratory. Go outside and enjoy nature. Watching your breath can improve emotional regulation, mood, and cognitive function. When a stressful situation arises, stay active in your normal daily activities.
Coping mechanisms for anxiety can also be helpful for people who experience moderate to severe anxiety.
The most commonly prescribed form of treatment for anxiety is talk therapy, which is typically delivered face to face in person or over the phone. Psychotherapists use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help clients become more aware of and manage their emotions, distress, and fear, and focus on self-management.
Many people experience some level of anxiety, and if it gets out of hand, a doctor may prescribe them medication. This can include prescription antidepressants, which work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, or anti-anxiety drugs, which counteract brain chemical changes that can make anxiety worse.
How To Prevent Stress And Anxiety From Becoming Chronic
The two most important steps to preventing chronic stress and anxiety are identifying a trigger and learning to effectively deal with it. If you can avoid triggers, you’re less likely to experience a bad day and less likely to experience a chronic bout of stress and anxiety. Other than identifying a trigger, addressing your stress or anxiety symptom is next in line.
Not everyone feels the same level of discomfort or stress every day, and you may need to alter your routine to get relief from your symptoms. Developing or maintaining a morning meditation habit is a great example. You can gradually increase the intensity of your practice to make it easy to complete. While you do your best to stay on top of your mental health, there may be external forces you have no control over.
Research has shown that cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which can be provided through a therapist, can reduce anxiety and increase stress resilience, while specific relaxation and stress management techniques, such as meditation and exercise, can reduce anxiety. In addition, a better diet increased sleep quality, and exercise can help manage both stress and anxiety.
A Better Diet
“The first and most important step in stress management is to eat right,” says Mary Jo Dorgan, Ph.D., a medical social worker and author of Living a Life Worth Living: Life-Changing Strategies for Your Type of Life (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011). When people are stressed or anxious, they often overlook the importance of a good diet and its role in helping to manage stress and anxiety.
Signs Of Stress
“The body’s stress system is like a mirror. It’s always looking for any difference in the environment, any threat to the body, and it gives it attention,” said Dr. Frank Tallarico, a clinical psychologist in New York and chair of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. He offers the following three signs that a person might be experiencing stress:
- Decreased ability to think clearly. It can be difficult to pay attention if you’re overwhelmed with worries. When someone is experiencing too much anxiety, they might find it hard to concentrate or make decisions.
- Prolonged fatigue. Anxiety can take a toll on the body, increasing fatigue and impacting a person’s ability to sleep.
- Increased irritability. Feelings of worry can trigger anger or frustration.
In times of stress, our bodies release a compound called catecholamines that stimulate the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. Our emotions can also take over our body’s normal physiologic responses.
When we are experiencing overwhelming sadness or crying for more than a few hours, for instance, our bodies produce the hormone prolactin that increases prolactin levels, increasing the amount of milk we produce.
That’s why people who are experiencing feelings of sadness or crying may find themselves leaking breast milk when they breastfeed. Emotional awareness is a sign of emotional well-being, but sometimes it can be more challenging to identify.
Signs Of Anxiety
But unlike stress, anxiety doesn’t have a clear physical explanation. When anxiety starts to feel out of control, it’s time to ask yourself some key questions:
- How anxious are you? Be honest about how your anxiety makes you feel. Anxiety is an emotion, but it’s also a physical condition. Feeling anxious isn’t necessarily a negative indicator; the next time you feel anxious, consider how you would feel if it were an actual medical issue.
- Are your worries increasing over time? Try to identify exactly when your worries have become excessive. Constantly feeling anxious means you’re always worried about something. Your ability to control your worries when they occur is limited. Realize that your worries won’t disappear.
Do you catch yourself having irrational thoughts, like “What if I never get a second date?” Or, are your thoughts getting you down, as you “should” be “so happy”? These are signs that you might have anxiety. Even if you feel like you’re dealing with a little stress and anxiety, if you identify the symptoms, they’re likely to get worse.
You may be dealing with a simple case of minor irritation, but the anxiety could be making you sick. In some cases, stress may not be the root cause of anxiety and it can be managed. But, in most cases, anxiety is caused by anxiety. Avoiding anxiety usually boils down to learning how to identify and avoid triggers.
Can You Have Stress And Anxiety At The Same Time?
One of the hallmarks of anxiety and stress is their similarity in symptoms. They can be very similar in fact. If you feel anxious when under a high level of stress, that’s a sign you have anxiety rather than stress. A study found that 84 percent of people with moderate-to-severe anxiety were unable to distinguish their anxiety from their stress.
“Stress is a phenomenon that occurs when we feel an actual or perceived threat. It is a response to a current challenge, worry, or problem. These challenging or difficult conditions might temporarily hinder or interfere with an individual’s ability to achieve or maintain a goal.” Whether you’re experiencing both at the same time or separately, coping mechanisms can help you better manage your anxiety.
It’s possible for people to experience anxiety and stress at the same time. However, it is extremely rare and generally only happens if you suffer from some condition: Psychological stress disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, people with a specific anxiety disorder (commonly called phobias) suffer from both mild stress and panic attacks. Even mild stress can cause severe anxiety in some people.
Stress can be beneficial for a variety of reasons. When we’re able to recover from a stressor and come back into our daily lives with a clear head and ready to take on the world, we’re better prepared to make wise decisions and take on challenging tasks.
However, too much stress, anxiety, or even a feeling of being in a constant state of heightened alertness can be harmful and lead to a number of negative consequences. It’s important to know the difference between the three categories of stress: short-term, mild, and moderate. Staying aware of how you’re feeling can help you identify how your stress levels are affecting you and can give you the strength to deal with the problem or issue causing your stress and anxiety.
Having more control over your own stress levels can help you avoid some of the more severe effects of the emotion and become more productive. Daily stress and anxiety are both ways to get your body into the “fight or flight” mode in response to a potential threat, but they have different physiological and behavioral effects. The good news is that using stress relief strategies can improve your health and increase your productivity.
I trust you enjoyed this article about the Stress And Anxiety Difference. Please stay tuned for more blog posts to come shortly.
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