Stress vs Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference
Stress and anxiety share many of the same physical symptoms, making it difficult to spot the differences between them. Learn if you are suffering from stress or anxiety.
Stress and anxiety are common issues with many people we help at Another Solution. Left unattended, they can grow to significant proportions, and feed off one another. Unfortunately, we see people whose stress and anxiety issues become so profound they start self-medicating with alcohol and drugs to get some relief. While this self-medication can work initially, it can end up with some abusing either alcohol or drugs and needing our help to get into recovery.
It can be difficult to spot the differences between stress and anxiety from the outside looking in. Both can lead to sleepless nights, exhaustion, excessive worry, lack of focus, and irritability. Even physical symptoms – like rapid heart rate, muscle tension, and headaches – can impact people experiencing stress and those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. With signs that can appear interchangeable, it can be challenging to know when to work on deep breathing and when to seek professional help.
In short, stress is your body's reaction to a trigger and is generally a short-term experience. Stress can be positive or negative. It's favorable when stress kicks in and helps you pull off that deadline you thought was a lost cause. It's harmful when stress results in insomnia, poor concentration, and impaired ability to do the things you usually do. Stress is a response to a threat in any given situation.
On the other hand, anxiety is a sustained mental health disorder that can be triggered by stress, and anxiety doesn't fade into the distance once the threat is mediated. Anxiety hangs around for the long haul and can cause significant impairment in social, occupational, and other vital areas of functioning.
Symptoms of Stress
There are several emotional and physical disorders linked to stress, including depression, anxiety, heart attacks, strokes, gastrointestinal distress, obesity, and hypertension, to name a few. High levels of stress can wreak havoc on the mind and the body. While stress can manifest in many ways, it helps to know a few common symptoms:
Back and/or neck pain
Feeling light-headed, faint, or dizzy
Sweaty palms or feet
Rapid heart rate
Having difficulty quieting the mind
Loss of sexual desire
Symptoms of stress can vary and change over time. Cueing into your responses to stress can help you increase awareness of how stress manifests for you. Knowing this vital information will help you learn to use stress reduction techniques to avoid long-term repercussions at the first signs of stress.
Coping with Stress
Learning to cope with stress can require some trial and error. What works for your best friend might not work for you. It's essential to build your stress reduction toolkit to have more than one strategy to implement when stress kicks in.
Relaxation breathing: The best thing you can do when under stress is to engage in deep breathing. Practice this strategy when you're calm to know how to use it when you're under pressure. Inhale for a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for four. Repeat.
Practice mindfulness: Sure, there's an app for that, but the best way to practice mindfulness is to disconnect from your digital world and reconnect with your natural world for a specific period each day. Take a walk outside and use the opportunity to notice your surroundings using all of your senses.
Get moving: Daily exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your brain. Making exercise a daily habit can buffer you from adverse reactions to stressful events.
Keep a journal: Writing down your best and worst of the day helps you sort through the obstacles and focus on what went right. It's normal to experience ups and downs on any given day.
Get creative: There's a reason adult coloring books are so popular – they work. Whether you're drawing, coloring, writing poetry, or throwing paint on a wall, engaging in a creative hobby gives your mind a chance to relax.
Crank up the tunes: Listening to slow, relaxing music decreases your stress response (just as fast-paced music pumps you up for a run.)
When to Seek Help
If you have difficulty managing stress and it impedes your ability to carry out your normal daily activities (like getting to work on time), talk therapy can help. It's important to learn to identify your triggers and responses and find strategies that work for you.
Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
The defining feature of generalized anxiety disorder is excessive anxiety and worry (about a number of events or activities) occurring more days than not for at least six months. The intensity of the anxiety or worry is out of proportion to the actual likelihood or impact of the anticipated event or events.
Other symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include the following:
Difficulty controlling worry
Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
Exaggerated startle response
Psychosomatic symptoms: Headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, pins and needles
Physical symptoms: Shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, chest pain
The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting 40 million adults (18% of the population).
Treatment of Anxiety Disorders
The two main treatments for anxiety are psychotherapy and medication, and many people benefit from a combination of the two.
Psychotherapy: Talk therapy is effective in helping people identify, process, and cope with their triggers of anxiety. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a highly effective, short-term treatment that helps people learn specific skills to target their triggers.
Medication: Antidepressants generally have some mild side effects but help alleviate some symptoms of anxiety. Antidepressants can be used for an extended period. Buspirone is an anti-anxiety medication that can also be used on an ongoing basis. Benzodiazepines can be used on a limited basis to mitigate anxiety symptoms, but they can be habit-forming. All medications should be thoroughly discussed with your healthcare provider. Any side effects should be reported immediately. Never discontinue the use of these medications without supervision from your healthcare provider.
Lifestyle changes: You can make several changes at home before you try medications. Daily exercise, good sleep hygiene, healthy eating, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol are all home remedies that can decrease anxiety symptoms.
Everyone experiences periods of increased stress, and sometimes stress can feel overwhelming. It is important to learn how to manage your stress and when to seek help. When pressure no longer feels manageable, and symptoms of anxiety interfere with your daily living, it's time to seek an evaluation from a licensed mental health practitioner.
Katie Hurley, LCSW