Most people experience stress and anxiety from time to time.
Stress is any demand placed on your brain or physical body. People can report feeling stressed when multiple competing demands are placed on them. The feeling of being stressed can be triggered by an event that makes you feel frustrated or nervous. Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, or unease. It can be a reaction to stress, or it can occur in people who are unable to identify significant stressors in their life.
Stress and anxiety are not always bad. In the short term, they can help you overcome a challenge or dangerous situation. Examples of everyday stress and anxiety include worrying about finding a job, feeling nervous before a big test, or being embarrassed in certain social situations. If we did not experience some anxiety we might not be motivated to do things that we need to do (for instance, studying for that big test!).
From the outside looking in, it can be difficult to spot the differences between stress and anxiety. 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 both people experiencing stress and those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. With symptoms that can appear interchangeable, it can be difficult 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. When stress kicks in and helps you pull off that deadline you thought was a lost cause, it’s positive. When stress results in insomnia, poor concentration, and impaired ability to do the things you normally do, it’s negative. Stress is a response to a threat in any given situation.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a sustained mental health disorder that can be triggered by stress. 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 important areas of functioning.
However, if stress and anxiety begin interfering with your daily life, it may indicate a more serious issue. If you are avoiding situations due to irrational fears, constantly worrying, or experiencing severe anxiety about a traumatic event weeks after it happened, it may be time to seek help. Stress and anxiety can produce both physical and psychological symptoms. People experience stress and anxiety differently. Common physical symptoms include: stomach-ache, muscle tension, headache, rapid breathing, fast heartbeat, sweating, shaking, dizziness, frequent urination, change in appetite, trouble sleeping, diarrhoea, and fatigue.
Stress and anxiety can cause mental or emotional symptoms in addition to physical ones. These can include: feelings of impending doom, panic or nervousness, especially in social settings, difficulty concentrating, irrational anger, and restlessness. People who have stress and anxiety over long periods of time may experience negative related health outcomes. They are more likely to develop heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and may even develop depression and panic disorder.
For most people, stress and anxiety come and go. They usually occur after particular life events, but then go away. Common stressors include: moving, starting a new school or job, having an illness or injury, having a friend or family member who is ill or injured, death of a family member or friend, getting married, and having a baby.
Stress and anxiety that occur frequently or seem out of proportion to the stressor may be signs of an anxiety disorder. An estimated 40 million Americans live with some type of anxiety disorder. People with these disorders may feel anxious and stressed on a daily basis and for prolonged periods of time. These disorders include the following:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a common anxiety disorder characterized by uncontrollable worrying. Sometimes people worry about bad things happening to them or their loved ones, and at other times they may not be able to identify any source of worry.
- Panic disorder is a condition that causes panic attacks, which are moments of extreme fear accompanied by a pounding heart, shortness of breath, and a fear of impending doom.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that causes flashbacks or anxiety as the result of a traumatic experience.
- Social phobia is a condition that causes intense feelings of anxiety in situations that involve interacting with others.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a condition that causes repetitive thoughts and the compulsion to complete certain ritual actions.
Learning to cope with stress can require some trial and error. What works for your best friend might not work for you. It’s important to build your own stress reduction toolkit so that you have more than one strategy to implement when stress kicks in.
- Relaxation breathing: The single best thing you can do when under stress is to engage in deep breathing. Practice this strategy when you’re calm so that you 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 of time 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 negative 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.)
Stress and anxiety are not always a bad thing. They are natural, short-term reactions that people need to stay safe. If someone starts to feel stressed or anxious all or a lot of the time, they should speak to a doctor. They may be suffering from chronic stress or an anxiety disorder. Warning signs to look out for include: excessive anxiety that interferes with everyday life, misusing drugs or alcohol to deal with stress or anxiety, irrational fears, a significant change in sleeping habits
a significant change in eating habits, a significant change in personal hygiene habits, a prolonged low mood, self-harming or thinking about self-harming, suicidal thoughts, feeling out of control.
If you feel overwhelmed by stress or anxiety, if it is taking a toll on your health, if you are using drugs or alcohol to cope with your symptoms, or if you have new or unusual symptoms, it is a good time to get professional help. Your primary healthcare provider can examine you, and refer you to a mental health professional if necessary. There is nothing to feel embarrassed or hesitant about. Stress and anxiety are very common, and your doctor will be glad you came to them for help. Sometimes, symptoms of anxiety can feel like a heart attack. Even if you think you are having an anxiety attack, it is best to go to the emergency room to rule out life-threatening conditions. If you are unsure or hesitant, it is safer to go to the emergency room so you can be quickly evaluated by a healthcare professional.