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Stress vs. Anxiety: What’s the Difference and How to Manage Them


Stress and anxiety are a common element in our day-to-day lives. Most people will experience stress and anxiety to varying degrees at some point in their lives. Depending on how severe the levels of stress and anxiety are, they can have a detrimental impact on your quality of life.

While stress and anxiety share many of the same physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms such as uneasiness, tension headaches, elevated blood pressure, and loss of sleep, they have different root causes. It is important to determine which one you are experiencing before you can find an effective treatment plan.

What is stress?

Stress is most commonly a response to an external event (or cause) such as arguing with a significant other or a deadline at work or school. These emotions typically subside once the situation has been resolved.

Stressors are a demand that is put on your brain or your physical body as a result of an external factor. Because an external event or stimulus causes stress, choosing to confront these situations head-on can help to alleviate them. If, on the other hand, you find you are experiencing prolonged or chronic stress, it may be beneficial to seek an alternate way to help alleviate your symptoms.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, or unease. Anxiety is a specific reaction to a stressful event. Unlike stress, where the origin is external, the source of feelings of anxiety is internal. Anxiety is typically characterized by feelings of apprehension or dread in situations that would not generally be considered as threatening.

Where stress often goes away after the emotion-inducing event has passed, anxiety persists even after the situation has passed. In even more severe cases, anxiety can escalate into an anxiety disorder, which is the most common mental health issue in the United States. Anxiety disorders can be classified in a variety of ways, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Stress vs. anxiety: What’s the difference?

The line between stress and anxiety can be hard to see. Both are rooted in emotional response. However, as previously mentioned, the key difference lies in how they are triggered. Typically, stress is triggered due to external factors. The trigger does not need to be long-term. Stress can arise due to exposure to one time or short-term events and experiences as well. In the absence of more significant mental health concerns, stress generally resolves after the situation that produced the stress response is gone.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is your emotional response to excessive, and persistent worries that do not go away, even in the absence of a stressor or trigger. Anxiety symptoms can feel overwhelming and dramatically affect your quality of life, as they do not typically resolve independently without help to manage your symptoms.

Tips for managing stress and anxiety

It is normal to experience stress and anxiety on occasion, and there are several strategies you can use to make the feelings associated with them more manageable. Take notice of how your body and mind respond to stressful and anxiety-producing situations. The next time a similar stressful experience occurs, you will be able to anticipate how you will react to it. This means the situation is likely to be less disruptive to your day-to-day tasks.

You can also try specific lifestyle changes that may help alleviate the symptoms associated with stress and anxiety. Trying some of these techniques can be used either alone or in conjunction with various therapeutic treatments to help reduce your symptoms.

Stress and anxiety reduction techniques include the following:

  • Eating a balanced and healthy diet
  • Limiting or reducing your consumption of alcohol and caffeine
  • Ensuring you are getting enough sleep
  • Starting (or reviving) a regular exercise routine
  • Yoga or meditation
  • Making time for or trying a new hobby
  • Writing in a journal

It also helps to recognize the events, people, or situations that are triggers. Once you understand this better, you can make a conscious decision to avoid them. If you are unable to avoid them altogether, you will have better foresight into how your body and mind are likely to react and plan ahead with healthy coping mechanisms.

Seek help when needed

If you experience stress and anxiety on a regular or chronic basis, it may be time to consider seeking treatment. Long term stress and anxiety can result in significant physical and emotional challenges.

There are many ways to seek treatment for stress and anxiety. These options can range from outpatient therapy to a residential treatment program. If you are struggling to cope with stress and anxiety or the instances of stress and anxiety have become frequent and overwhelming, your primary care provider may refer you to a mental health provider.

Two popular forms of psychotherapy used in the treatment of stress and anxiety are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. In addition, your provider may recommend medications (for short-term use) to help reduce the intensity and severity of your symptoms as you start therapy.

Conclusion

Stress and anxiety are interrelated. Anxiety and the symptoms associated with anxiety disorders are generally the direct results of a stressful event or chronic stress management difficulties. If you find yourself struggling to cope with stress and anxiety symptoms, it may be time to consider seeking help to overcome your symptoms in a healthy and effective way.

Key takeaways

Depending on how severe the levels of stress and anxiety are, they can have a detrimental impact on your quality of life.

Stress is most commonly a response to an external event or cause.

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, or unease.

You can try lifestyle changes that may help alleviate the symptoms.

Treatment options can range from outpatient therapy to a residential treatment program.

Resources:

American Psychological Association. What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?

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