Mental health has now gained more traction such that there is now a day dedicated to it every October 10, the “World Mental Health Day”.
Similarly, the words ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are common in our everyday language.
You may have heard a student say that they’re stressed because of an upcoming test. Alternatively, you may have heard someone say that they always get anxious during exams.
Although both words have similarities, there are some notable differences between the two.
Let’s take a closer look at the similarities and distinctions between stress and anxiety.
The Connection Between Stress and Anxiety
Also, both share some symptoms including headaches, racing thoughts, worry, restlessness and insomnia. This is why the two words are often used interchangeably. Yet, there are differences between stress and anxiety.
How to Tell the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety
It’s important to identify the differences between the two responses.
For one, stress is a response to an external trigger. This feeling can be positive or negative. For instance, stress can benefit you by pushing you to work on a project and complete it on time.
However, it can also have a negative effect, stress can lead to poor concentration, insomnia, and impaired ability to do the things you usually do.
Humans develop a stress response as a survival mechanism. It constitutes part of the fight or flight trigger when we are faced with challenges.
It is true that we may no longer be in the wilderness battling with carnivores for a meal but we still face plenty of situations in life that trigger the body to respond with the same sense of urgency.
Stress usually shows up in two ways.
You can experience acute stress, where symptoms include poor sleep, low moods, irritability, poor concentration, anxiety, and the desire to be alone.
The second type is chronic stress. This type can lead to various physical health issues and mental health conditions such as high blood pressure, digestive problems, insomnia, depression, and anxiety.
These physical symptoms of stress are the reason why learning to manage it is crucial.
On the other hand, anxiety is a prolonged mental health disorder that can be triggered by stress. This response is triggered internally by our thoughts.
Let’s say for instance that it’s almost time to head home. But your boss turns up with a pile of documents and asks you to help them out by completing a project. Your boss insists that it’s urgent and it can’t wait.
Hesitantly, you say yes. You even agree to get it done by morning the next day.
So you head home thinking to yourself, “What’s wrong with me? How can I ever get this done before 9 a.m. tomorrow? Remember the last time? the migraine? Why didn’t you say no like your co-workers do?”
The self-talk that tells you it’s going to be impossible to complete the work on time is what leads to the feeling of anxiety. It’s important to note that anxiety is a stress reaction. It’s similar to the feeling that children get when they perceive that they can’t handle a situation. The lack of control over a situation is what leads to fear and worry.
Excessive anxiety often leads to similar issues such as, chronic stress or anxiety disorders. Stressful situations in your life can make it difficult for you to lead a normal life, as you constantly feel anxious. A mental health professional is in the best position to identify any mental health issue.
Stress often ignites anxious feelings which are characterized by thoughts such as “I can’t make it,” or “I can’t do this.”
Anxiety and stress also cause emotional symptoms, some of which include feelings of hopelessness, unhappiness, low morale, and moodiness. You may feel agitated or struggle with relaxing.
Your social life may also become affected, as you may become socially withdrawn. You may even develop nervous habits such as nail biting, grinding of teeth, foot tapping and so on.
How Does Stress Turn Into Anxiety?
The feeling of stress can be triggered by an incident that makes you nervous or frustrated. Anxiety is that feeling of fear, worry, or unease. This feeling can be a reaction to stress or it can occur in people who have a hard time identifying significant stressors in their lives.
Prolonged tension leads to chronic stress when left unchecked.
For example, a student who struggles with a certain subject will likely experience stress every time they face a test on that subject. Every time they have to work on that subject, they’ll also feel stressed.
Chronic stress can lead to anxiety.
For instance, a student who experiences chronic stress when studying for a subject will start thinking that maybe they just can’t do certain things. As a result, they may be full of worry and fear because they feel that no matter what they do, they may still fail.
It is possible to experience a bit of both, but one maybe more overwhelming.
Am I Anxious or Stressed?
Generally, stress is a short-term reaction to an external event.
Symptoms include a faster heartbeat, faster breathing, general unhappiness, feeling overwhelmed, nausea, loneliness, dizziness, anxious thoughts, diarrhea or constipation.
You can also get a panic attack from stress. However, the panic attack ends when the stressor goes away.
As mentioned earlier, anxiety and stress have the same physical symptoms. When you’re anxious, you may also experience faster breathing, a faster heartbeat, a feeling of unease or dread, nervousness, tenseness, restlessness, sweating, diarrhea or constipation.
You can tell the difference by how long the mental and physical symptoms persist. For instance, anxiety tends to persist for a long time and won’t go away even with the absence of a stressor.
An anxious person typically experiences a “persistent feeling of apprehension or dread” in situations that are not as threatening as perceived. In severe cases, it can escalate into a medical issue, such as a panic disorder or anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorder is the leading mental health issue in the U.S. This disorder is classified in a variety of ways. They include; generalized anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
People with anxiety disorders experience muscle tension, for instance, people who have panic attacks experience muscle tension and have feelings of stiffness throughout the body even long after the attack subsides.
The muscle pain and discomfort can be managed through relaxation techniques. Also, exercises such as breathing exercises, visualization, and progressive muscle relaxation can help calm and relax the body.
Treatment and Management For Stress and Anxiety
Whether you’re experiencing stress or anxiety, it’s so important for you to commit to managing the distress, as both responses can harm your physical and mental health.
Prolonged stress and anxiety can ultimately lead to depression, substance abuse, headaches, and feelings of nausea.
They can significantly impede your life making it difficult to concentrate at work, as you experience constant worry and difficulty in making decisions.
Your first approach to managing the responses involves developing self-awareness. You need to become aware of the warning signs that may present themselves: How do you feel? Where in your body do you experience the symptoms? What triggers them? and so on.
When you become curious and understand the symptoms, you can tell the difference between stress and anxiety within your body. Once you understand the signs you can manage the stress and anxiety through exercise, professional treatment, therapy and other techniques.
For example, relaxation breathing can help you achieve calm when faced with a stressful situation. Also, a daily exercise schedule strengthens the brain and helps you release the pressure or distress that you experience when faced with stress or anxiety. These exercises will work wonders for your mental health.
You can also practice mindfulness.
The best way to do this is to take some time each day to disconnect from the digital world and reconnect with nature. You’d be amazed at how relaxing a walk outside can make you feel.
Spending time sharpening your creative skills is another way to destress or overcome anxiety.
A recent article showed that tapping into your creativity not only improves your overall health but also helps you destress. Whether you’re drawing, writing poetry, coloring, or forming lyrics to your own song, engaging in a creative hobby helps you relax.
It can be that your job is affecting your health and leading to chronic stress. If that is the case your first reaction must be to develop healthy responses.
You can work on getting good quality sleep, read a novel or go to the movies. You can also learn how to relax and take time to recharge.
If you are facing a project with a strict deadline and it’s making you anxious, you can talk to your supervisor and request for some additional support to help get the project completed on time.
Overall, one of the best strategies to overcoming the physical, emotional, and social consequences of stress or anxiety is to accept that not everything is within your control.
Therefore, it is important to look for the best way to handle the situation without allowing yourself to be bogged down with worry.
You must take the time to learn your anxiety and stress triggers. After you have discovered what the stress and anxiety triggers are, choose to be kinder to yourself by getting enough sleep and working on the things that make you anxious.
When to See a Doctor
In some instances, the anxiety can be as a result of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder. Most people also experience a combination of stress anxiety making it hard for them to navigate their way through life.
When you struggle with stress response to a point that you have trouble enjoying life, then it is important for you to seek treatment.
While this article aims to alleviate stress and anxiety in practical ways, please remember that it is also necessary to consult a mental health professional to properly diagnose mental health conditions in order to get appropriate intervention.
A mental health professional will be able to help you take the necessary action to control the response (whether it be stress or anxiety). Therapy will also help you identify your triggers, responses, and how best to handle them.
Living a life that is free from stress or anxiety is important for your health and your future. So, choosing to manage the issue and find solutions that work for you, is the best way to move forward and live your life.