Anxiety vs Stress, what’s the difference? These are two things that everyone faces at some point whether it’s the bills that are piling up, a crazy work schedule or responsibilities: it’s a given. We often hear these terms used interchangeably and both are emotional responses; however, there is a slight variance between anxiety vs. stress. Stress results from external factors as a response to a threat of some kind such as meeting a deadline or a conflict. Anxiety is the reaction to the stressor by constant worrying which can be short-lived or long-term. For instance, you may have anxiety over getting a shot but once it’s done the anxiety resolves.
Anxiety vs Stress : Similar but Different
There are many situations where we find ourselves under stress due to external factors such as a big change or being placed under a lot of pressure. It may be one major situation but stress can also come from a build-up of smaller things that are happening in your life. It’s important to understand that stress and anxiety are both normal emotional reactions. Everyone responds differently to certain situations and one person’s perception may not be the same as another when it comes to what they can handle.
The root of anxiety generally stems from uncertainty and it’s normal to experience. In fact, there are some circumstances where stress and being anxious are beneficial. It is our body’s natural defense mechanism to protect us from danger in certain situations. Being anxious about certain things can motivate you to make a change for a more positive outcome or avoid something bad.
Your body is actually designed to revert to the ‘fight or flight’ response as a normal reaction to combat stress. This response promotes a psychological change which allows your body to effectively process situations that become stressful whenever they arise. It is meant to push us to react faster in an emergency. When this natural response is stimulated over an extended period of time, that’s when stress can become unmanageable.
The physical and emotional strain on our bodies as a result of a prolonged response to stress can cause our reactions to become more intense. It can affect your day-to-day life including your work performance and struggle with daily tasks. Anxiety and stress can lead to very similar symptoms which may be physical as well as mental. Understanding the difference between these two emotional matters can help you address them effectively and recognize when professional help may be needed.
What is Anxiety Disorder?
It is not uncommon for many of us to experience anxiety at some point. It can occur from a problem you are faced with at work or when it comes to making important decisions. If you experience symptoms of anxiety persistently that carries on for months, however, it may be a sign of anxiety disorder. This is different from the short-term anxiety feelings most people experience from time to time in their lives. An anxiety disorder can be determined by a health expert, particularly a psychologist. It is estimated nearly 31% of Americans experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Causes that may contribute to these disorders have been found to come from environmental factors but genetics might also play a role.
There are many different forms of anxiety disorder, most of which can negatively affect your daily life with work or school. Some disorders can manifest as specific phobias such as the fear of public speaking or fear of flying. This can make situations become very difficult where it may be necessary. Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common form people face. It is characterized by symptoms related to anxiety over the course of 6 months or longer. Excessive worrying over various topics which becomes difficult to control as well as physical symptoms accompanied by anxiety are typical signs.
Additional symptoms with generalized anxiety disorder include:
- Restlessness or feeling on-edge
- Becoming fatigued easily
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty concentrating on something or mind going blank
Anxiety disorders can also lead to sleep disorders. People who experience prolonged anxiety may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. These disorders can also interfere with daily activities such as social interactions.
Social anxiety disorder is another very common issue many face. Individuals with social anxiety experience intense fear in social interactions with others. This anxiety stems from fear of how others might perceive them based on behavior or appearance leading them to feel embarrassed. It can occur in the workplace or at school and cause problems with daily interactions. People with social anxiety often try to avoid social interaction to prevent becoming distressed in uncomfortable situations. Some indications of social anxiety disorder might include fear of public speaking, feeling uncomfortable in open spaces or confined to enclosed spaces, fear of using public transportation, or being in crowded places.
Panic disorder is another form of an anxiety disorder and generally leads the individual to experience sudden anxiety attacks. Imagine the feeling after having a close call with a semi-truck in traffic. That heart-racing emotion you experience in unexpected situations is exactly what someone with panic disorder experiences on a regular basis minus the close call. These unexpected attacks usually come on very quickly and cause intense fear which may bring on sweating, dizziness, and gasping for air. These attacks can strike without warning and may occur with or without a trigger.
Separation anxiety disorder often occurs in children but adults may experience this disorder as well. It is identified as a fear of being separated from a particular person the individual feels an attachment to. The individual fears or worries about something happening to the person they’re attached to while they are apart and fear of being alone. Separation anxiety can also manifest as nightmares about being separated from someone.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD occurs as a result of a traumatic experience or a scary event. Nearly everyone experiences fear and stressed emotions following a scary or dangerous event. Most recover shortly afterwards and resume daily function. When those emotions continue for longer than a month past the event and disrupt daily function it may be a sign of PTSD. This disorder can cause individuals to have flashbacks of the event reliving the trauma, bad dreams or nightmares, and frightening thoughts. It may be triggered by their own thoughts or from things that may bring up memories of the event. Children, teens, and adults can suffer from PTSD and treatment from a professional in mental health is usually necessary to recover.
Anxiety and stress can be brought on from various factors but there are a few particular groups that are at a higher risk. Women, for one, are twice as likely than men to develop anxiety. A family history with mental health illnesses or anxiety that is prevalent among other family members are at a greater risk of developing anxiety. Another potential cause is from having a stressful childhood.
The Influence of Technology on Anxiety and Stress
We live in a very digital era these days relying on technology in our everyday lives in some form or another. It has become so prevalent that we have become dependent and in some cases addicted to our devices. Anytime you step out into the world if you look around you, you will see people glued to their phones or tablets. In restaurants, at the store, even while at the park or outdoors you see it.
To get an idea of how much time we spend using technology go to the settings of your phone or tablet and check the screen time. This info will tell you how much time on average you spend per day on your device. It may also give you an average of your daily screen time per week. You may not realize just how much screen time we are exposed to everyday and it doesn’t come just from your phone or table. Our exposure to screens and technology also includes the time spent in front of a computer at work or school and TV time in the evening or at night. On average we are spending more time in front of a screen or digital media of some kind in a typical day than not. All of this exposure does play a role in your mental health. It affects how we socialize and communicate with others. The content we are exposed to through these digital media platforms also invokes our mood and behavior. It can influence our perception of what’s happening around us.
While there are many advantages to having access to technology it comes at a cost and not just from your wallet. Consider the impact technology has on our mental health when it comes to anxiety and stress. To some degree, we have become so attached to our phones in our everyday lives that it can lead to anxiety disorders like separation anxiety. Have you ever forgotten your phone at home or left it somewhere and briefly panicked? It leaves you feeling out of place and can invoke anxious feelings until you have it again. We have reached a point that we feel we can not live without technology in our lives.
In another sense, technology leaves us more vulnerable to anxiety by lessening our critical thinking skills. How often have you used your phone for making decisions like buying a product or going to a restaurant or destination based on reviews? Some even rely on their phones for making big decisions like buying a house, among other things. While it may be helpful and convenient in decision-making it can also hinder our own decision-making process. When it comes to larger uncertainties that can’t be solved by an Internet search we are not as adept at handling them when we do encounter them.
It also comes as no shock that mental health disorders such as depression can also be contributed from over exposure to technology. Think of social media and its influence on how we see others and how we are perceived. Social media gives users a platform to voice their opinions very publicly and there is no shortage of shaming and judgement. These factors can wreak havoc on our self-esteem and social interaction with others in public, especially in younger adults and teens.
How do we combat anxiety vs. stress with technology in our daily lives? The solution isn’t to toss out your smartphone or laptop. Managing your time spent in front of a screen can be met by balancing time spent off of it. Make time for social interaction with friends, family, and co-workers. Have real face-to-face conversations when you can rather than via text messages and phone calls.
Ironically, the solution can also be met with the problem, technology. According to the National Library of Medicine research has shown effective treatment in social anxiety by use of technology-assisted interventions. There are specific apps that are also designed to help in coping with anxiety including teletherapy that can help improve mental well-being despite it all.
We can’t always avoid stressful circumstances but we can control our response to those situations. Living with high stress levels can greatly hinder your overall health and make life seem overwhelming. Learning how to reduce your levels of stress will give you more control of your life and achieve much needed balance. It can also help make it easier to unwind at the end of the day for a more restful night’s sleep.
Tips for Managing Your Emotions | Anxiety vs Stress
Treatment and management may differ between anxiety vs. stress but there are many ways to work on improving your mental well-being. Keep in mind not every method will work for everyone so try what you are comfortable with. Start small and keep your goals within achievable targets. Setting up large goals can present too much stress to handle when you are already under a lot of pressure.
Anxiety is often the reaction of how you respond to stress so taking measures to minimize stress in your life and coping in stressful situations is a good place to start.
Know Your Triggers
Learn how to identify stress factors so you can take steps to avoid them or better handle them so you will be prepared when they occur. Start by accounting for events or ongoing situations that regularly come up which bring on stress such as your morning routine or things you often worry about. Next, take time to reflect on things that don’t occur regularly but cause stress whenever they occur. Once you have taken a mental inventory of the general things you know activates your stress levels you can work on taking steps to be prepared.
As difficult as it may be, it’s important to come to terms with the things you cannot control. Accepting that there are just some aspects of life you will not be able to do anything about can help direct your focus to being more productive. Ask yourself these questions when you find yourself worrying excessively over something:
- Is the thing I’m worrying about something I can change?
- Is what I’m worrying about something critically important?
- Will worrying about this problem make any difference in the outcome?
If the answer is no, redirect your thinking and energy on things that are important and what you can control.
Make Conscious Lifestyle Choices
There are some factors that might influence anxiety symptoms which require a change to your lifestyle and habits. Caffeine, for one, may be something you need to cut out or limit. Caffeine is a stimulant which can set off your anxiety and stress levels. If you have difficulty keeping your anxiety under control, eliminate caffeine or limit your intake to no more than one serving per day.
High levels of stress can also contribute to unhealthy habits such as stress-eating, also known as binge eating. Limit snacks in between meals and make conscious choices before choosing a snack. Ask yourself, are you eating because you are hungry or is it a coping mechanism to a problem you are facing? What you are eating can play a role in your mental health as well as your physical health. Poor eating habits can correlate to mood disorders.
You know that expression you are what you eat? It holds true when it comes to your mood and mental health. A balanced diet consisting of vital nutrients your body needs can help keep your mind and body in check. Make healthier food choices and limit your intake of processed foods, refined sugars and saturated fats. Specific foods such as complex carbohydrates can actually help improve your mental function by maintaining blood sugar levels and promote a calmer feeling. Keep only healthy food and snack choices in your home or at your desk.
Vitamin deficiencies have also been linked to health conditions and may contribute to anxiety and depression. Keep your regular health visits with your primary doctor and routine blood work to check for deficiencies that can be treated. A supplement may be needed to add to your diet to restore healthy balance and improve brain chemistry.
Create a schedule with set times for breakfast and getting ready while allocating extra time to factor in setbacks that might occur to avoid a stressful morning/daytime routine. Choose the best time for you to make necessary preparations for the day. Are you a morning person or do you prefer getting things done in the evening? Have clothes/outfits picked and laid out for the day, prep and pack up lunches and snacks. Devise a meal plan at the beginning of the week for dinner each night so it’s one less thing on your plate to worry about. Plan your grocery trip to include what you need for the week in meals and snacks to avoid having to make last minute trips.
Debts and overdue expenses can bring on stress for anyone. Manage your money effectively when payday arrives to set aside what you need to pay first. Pay bills on time as soon as they arrive to avoid late fees or penalties. Talk to an expert on managing money if you have difficulty keeping your finances in order and seek help for debt-relief resources.
Take a Break
You might find you become more productive when you take a break more frequently. If you are overwhelmed with too many tasks, give yourself 5 minutes to take a breather. Use your allotted break times at work. Most employers are required to allow at least one to two 15-minute breaks during a typical work day. Don’t be afraid to ask your employer about break times you are allowed and utilize them!
Make a list of what needs to be done in order with the most important first. Ask for help if needed with the things that are not as important on your list so you can focus on making sure those that come first are done. Take a break from the media outlets. Turn off the news or social media as these can make anxiety worse. Reduce the amount of time you spend around people that bring on stress in your life.
Join a Support Group
Self-help and support groups help individuals facing different issues come together to share a common ground in support of one another. Talking about and sharing your struggles as well as achievements with others that can relate has been shown to be very beneficial for various mental health disorders.
Regularly Practice Relaxation Techniques
Set aside time in your day for a relaxing activity that brings you calm and peace. You might enjoy a relaxing hot bath at the end of a long day to help you unwind. Add in some aromatherapy such as essential oils or candles to stimulate a relaxing environment. Start your day with easy-listening music that you find uplifting and peaceful to set your mood to a good start. If you enjoy reading, put aside a few minutes per day to read a book or magazine you enjoy. Take a walk for a quick change of scenery and refresh your mind.
Practice Yoga or Pilates
Any form of physical activity can be really beneficial in improving your mental and physical health. Yoga is an exercise technique that has been widely adapted for its many wonderful benefits. This form of exercise is especially effective at helping you unwind and de-stress through gentle stretches and meditative practices. It can also help improve symptoms resulting from stress by promoting better sleep as well as stretching and loosening tense muscle groups. Aerobic exercise is another form of physical activity that may be beneficial to your mental health. Be sure to consult with your doctor prior to starting any physical activity if you have any medical conditions to avoid potential risks.
Similar to yoga, mindfulness is a state of mind where you focus solely on the present moment. Common techniques involved through this practice include mindful breathing, mindful eating, mindful movement, and a mental scan of your body focusing on one body part at a time. It’s a slightly different approach to stress management and has been studied to show improvement in stress levels as well as the response to stress.
You become intentionally aware and accept whatever you are feeling without judgement. Set out a specific time of day to become reconnected with the natural world and tune out the digital world. Make use of all of your senses as you take in your surroundings. There are courses available that instruct the many techniques of practicing mindfulness by certified instructors in Mindful-Based Stress Reduction. https://www.ummhealth.org/center-mindfulness
Taking steps to manage and reduce your stress are helpful in getting you back to leading a normal life. For people who struggle with anxiety it shouldn’t take the place of professional help. Prolonged stress and anxiety that goes without proper treatment can lead to more serious mental health problems or complications.
When to Seek Help
The way we handle anxiety vs. stress varies from one person to the next. You may be able to tackle stressful situations and move on without any negative interference, but anxiety can affect you differently. When either of these two affect your life in ways that are interfering with your performance and function it’s time to seek additional measures for help. It is estimated that only a third of individuals suffering from anxiety seek help. Recognizing the signs and reaching out to receive proper treatment is important to overall well-being and achieve normal daily function. Signs include:
- Becoming easily irritated
- Difficulty sleeping and easily fatigued
- Having trouble leaving the house
- Difficulty eating
- Frequent headaches, dizziness, or stomach aches
- Shortness of breath, chest pains, rapid heartbeat
- Becoming distressed or impaired in social or occupational functions
Treatment for anxiety may require psychotherapy (or talk therapy), medication or a combination of the two. Psychotherapy is also known as talk therapy and conducted by a therapist in which the individual talks to them about what’s on their mind. This allows the therapist to evaluate and determine if there is a specific type of anxiety the individual is facing. A therapist can focus on the specific needs a person requires in effective treatment for their anxiety.
Cognitive behavior therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which people learn various methods on how to react, think and behave differently when faced with situations that bring on anxiety. This form of therapy is also useful and effective in treating social anxiety by helping people gain social skills and put them into practice. This form of talk therapy is often effective in treating individuals with post traumatic stress disorder as well.
Cognitive therapy is slightly different from CBT, but it may be used in combination for the treatment of social anxiety disorder. This form of therapy is centered on identifying thoughts which are unhelpful or distorted that may underlie anxiety disorders. Once those thoughts can be singled out they can become challenged then neutralized to conquer anxious behavior.
Another form of therapy that may be used in the treatment of anxiety disorders is exposure therapy. As it is implied, the method behind this therapy is by confronting the fear which the anxiety is stemming from. The purpose is to assist individuals with interacting in activities they might have avoided due to fear. Relaxation exercises or imagery might be used as part of cognitive therapy.
The use of medication isn’t used specifically as a cure for anxiety, rather it is used to help treat the symptoms often accompanied by stress. Only a primary care doctor or a licensed therapist can prescribe medication for anxiety disorder. Medications typically consist of anti-anxiety medication, antidepressants, or beta-blockers. Anti-anxiety meds aim to reduce anxiety-driven symptoms, panic attacks, and feelings of intense fear and worry. Medication may be given in short periods of time to reduce the risk of dependency. Antidepressants are given for the treatment of depression but can also be used in treating anxiety as well. These medications may help combat feelings of worry or intense fear by improving how the brain utilizes certain chemicals which manage stress and mood.
In some cases your genes may be responsible for triggering anxiety from stress. Mood-enhancing transmitters are chemicals found in the brain responsible for how we feel. Epigenetics is how the environment affects our gene expression, meaning our environment has a strong influence on our genes and who we become. Everything we encounter has the potential to switch our genes on or off affecting our health in a multitude of ways, including mental and mood disorders.
When it comes to mood disorders the use of anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are often used as they target specific brain chemical messengers.
It’s important to keep in mind everyone may respond differently to medication and certain factors may play a role in its effectiveness. There is more than simply one method for managing anxiety and stress. It may take multiple attempts of various methods to keep things in check with your emotional well-being but once you find what works it will make all the difference.