Stress and anxiety are natural emotional responses that occur when our body is in a fight or flight mode. In times of danger, our body and mind experience stress and anxiety which helps us stay focused, alert, and prepared to face the looming threat.
However, these emotional responses can often spiral into overwhelming feelings that can make them unmanageable. Here, we will delve into the differences between stress and anxiety as well as list their symptoms and solutions to help you understand how to deal with them better. Let’s dive in.
What is Stress?
Stress is a natural bodily response to an external trigger such as a type of change, threat, or demand. This response can be physical, mental, or emotional and usually subsides once the situation has been dealt with.
All of us experience some degree of stress in our day-to-day lives. However, we respond differently to stressors with some of us responding more frequently or intensely than others.
Also, it is important to note that the cause of stress can be a single event or change or a build-up of many stressful situations. They can also be ongoing or one-time events.
The potential causes of stress include the following:
- Mounting work deadlines
- Too many domestic chores
- Disagreement with a loved one such as a family member or a friend
- Academic pressures
- Financial problems
- Hectic schedules
- Sudden or big changes like relocating, divorce, breakup, loss of a job, illness, injury, or bereavement
- Traumatic experiences such as abuse, discrimination, hate, or a car accident
Stress is often perceived as harmful, but it can be both good and bad. Good stress, aka eustress, pumps your body with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline which pushes you to respond quickly. This motivates you to complete your tasks on time and focus on things that need your attention.
However, distress or bad stress affects you negatively and makes you feel low, upset, and lethargic. It is usually more severe than eustress and can lead to poor quality of life. When prolonged in the form of chronic stress, it can cause depression, pain, insomnia, digestive issues, changes in diet and weight, isolation, and even heart disease.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is another emotional response that you may experience in the form of worry, nervousness, dread, or fear. You may feel anxious before an important presentation or test and worry that you won’t do well.
Stress and anxiety are generally linked as stressful situations or experiences often trigger anxiety. However, unlike stress, anxiety can arise as a reaction to stress or even without any external triggers.
Here are a few common causes of anxiety:
- A physical or mental health condition
- Chemical imbalance
- Drug abuse
- Traumatic or stressful life events
- New people or social situations
- Public speaking
- A phobia trigger like heights, blood, or snakes
- Feeling judged by others
- A feeling that things are not in order
Anxiety becomes an issue that you need to deal with when it spirals out of control and impacts your life negatively.
High anxiety or an anxiety disorder can have similar effects as chronic stress: emotional distress and physical symptoms. It can prevent you from leading a normal life and make you lose interest in your work, daily routine, and social activities. It can even discourage you from trying new things.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are psychological conditions that are diagnosed only when anxiety symptoms become excessive and frequent to the point that it starts interfering with a person’s life. Here are the common types of anxiety disorders:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
It includes excessive worry and nervousness about different events. It sometimes arises even when there are no external triggers.
A person with a phobia has a specific fear that triggers their anxiety which may result in avoidant behaviors. Agoraphobia, arachnophobia, and claustrophobia are common types of phobias.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder arises in social situations and interactions. It typically stems from an intense fear of being embarrassed, judged, or rejected by others.
A panic attack is a sudden and intense symptom of anxiety that usually lasts a few minutes. A panic disorder is a mental health condition where a person experiences panic attacks regularly. People with this disorder fear having another panic attack and avoid situations and places where they have had attacks.
Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety have similar symptoms which include:
- Increased heart rate
- Faster breathing
- Anger, moodiness, or irritability
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- General unhappiness
- Inability to focus
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in appetite
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Muscle tension
- Increased sweating
In addition to the above anxiety and stress symptoms, people with anxiety may also experience:
- An irrational feeling of unease, dread, or impending doom
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Brain fog
Can Stress or Anxiety turn into the Other?
Sometimes, stress may lead to anxiety or compound existing feelings of anxiety. However, this is not true for everyone. Some people who are stressed out (even excessively) do not develop any anxiety attack symptoms.
Anxiety is more of a chronic stress response that arises easily but does not subside as easily. When our body remains in fight or flight mode for extended periods of time, it can lead to more complex reactions like diseases and poor quality of life.
Treatment and Management
Since stress arises from external factors, tackling issues head-on can be immensely helpful. If you’re experiencing chronic stress, there are many solutions for stress relief at your disposal. Many treatment strategies to reduce and manage stress also work for anxiety relief. If you’re looking for simple ways to reduce stress and anxiety, here they are:
- Regular physical activity
- A balanced diet
- Good sleep hygiene
- Breathing exercises
- Mindfulness and meditation
- Connecting with loved ones
- Setting goals and working toward them
- Consuming adaptogens
People who experience chronic stress and anxiety disorders may also benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional. The professional may do a stress test or an anxiety test to diagnose an individual’s condition. They will then decide on a treatment plan tailored for that person that often includes talk therapy and medication.
Learning to spot the symptoms and distinguish between anxiety and stress is important. Not only will this help you minimize the effect of stress on your anxiety (and thus help keep anxiety disorders at bay), but ultimately, it will improve your quality of life.