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What Is The Difference between Stress and Anxiety?

Mary-Lauren O’Crowley, NCC, LPC 

What’s the real difference between stress and anxiety? As close as they may seem, they greatly differ, as stress is characterized by external short- or long-term triggers. When we undergo stress, it can cause both mental and physical symptoms. Interestingly enough, these symptoms are often overlooked. Some of these symptoms include anger, fatigue, aches and pains, sleep difficulties, and digestive troubles. On the other hand, anxiety is characterized by persistent and overwhelming episodes of worry that are difficult to control, even when short- or long-term stressors are no longer present. The reality is that anxiety and stress have similar presenting symptoms including brain fog, irritability, muscle pains and tension, difficulty concentrating, and insomnia. The major difference to note, however, is that even after external stressors or life circumstances change, feelings of intense discomfort and mental disturbance remain in an individual with anxiety. 

Living with stress or anxiety

Techniques to manage both stress and anxiety include physical activity, a nutritious diet, quality sleep, relaxation and time away from work, meditation and mindfulness, journaling, and speaking with someone you trust. When stress and anxiety fail to improve after implementing these mechanisms or you fail to feel better and function as normal, it is wise to reach out for help from a licensed mental health professional. A therapist can help you determine the best treatment option for you. When an anxiety disorder is suspected, talk therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and exposure therapy can be utilized to mitigate symptoms. 

How common is anxiety? 

Generalized Anxiety disorder is quite common amongst Americans over the age of 18. Generalized anxiety is one of the most reported anxiety disorders to date. Common characteristics of generalized anxiety include rumination and difficulty controlling worry, and it typically occurs for six months or more. Worry in this state of generalized anxiety is not tied to any specific topic or area, but instead often jumps from topic -topic. Generalized anxiety can also manifest in physiological ways including tension, headaches, and digestive issues. 

Panic disorder is another type of anxiety disorder. Panic disorder 

is characterized by sudden anxious thoughts, some involving fear of death, with prominent physical symptoms including sweating, hyperventilation, increased heart rate, and dizziness. Panic disorder can occur with or without agoraphobia, which is a fear of places or environments that incite panic. Panic disorders are closely related to phobias and social anxiety. 

Treating Anxiety Disorder

Whether you are dealing with chronic or stress, there is some good news:  anxiety disorders can effectively be treated by a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist with the use of psychotherapy and/or medication. The most common method of therapy used for treating anxiety disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy. This modality is relatively practical, as it focuses on addressing and ultimately challenging maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that ultimately increase anxiety. Exposure therapy is also effective, as it involves facing your fear head on in order to end the cycle of fear, panic, and anxiety associated with the respective trigger, making it safe and controlled thus sustainable. 

Final Thoughts

Anxiety and stress may seem quite similar, but they are particularly different.  Stress responses occur within a short or long-term period based on a specific external situation, while anxiety is an internal stress response. With anxiety, it rarely subsides after the situation resolves. Often times, it transfers to another situation, thus bringing forth constant and persistent feelings of fear, nervousness, doom,  and focus on worst-case scenarios. 

Once you face stress or anxiety and it interferes with your everyday functioning, it is critical to seek professional mental health assistance. If you or someone you know is struggling with chronic stress or anxiety, please reach out to the mental health professionals at Symmetry Counseling today!

For more information, please visit https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-fact-sheet 

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