Understanding the difference between stress and anxiety
How often do you say, ‘I’m feeling stressed?’
If you say this many times a day, you might actually be experiencing anxiety. It’s very easy to mix up these two emotional responses because the symptoms are quite similar.
Stress is how we react when placed under pressure or when faced with a short-term or long-term threat from an external trigger. It’s natural for your body to activate its flight or fight response to handle the threat, which includes your heart rate increasing and your muscles tensing up. But then once the threat or trigger disappears, eventually your body resets to its normal state. You then feel calmer, your heart rate goes down, and your palms stop sweating.
“Labelling anxiety as stress means you’re not looking deep at the underlying triggers
which is unhelpful in the long term.”
- Deidre Dattoli
According to researchers, your body responds to stress and anxiety by showing similar symptoms. It makes it harder to differentiate if you’re stressed or anxious because your heart rate has gone up, you’re breathing faster and your palms may feel clammy while experiencing both stress and anxiety.
The point to remember is that anxiety is your body’s reaction to stress. After your body resets to its normal state, anxiety can linger making you feel uneasy or distressed even if the trigger has gone away.
Stress tends to be short term and activates because you see a recognised threat. Anxiety can linger without a trigger. Even if everything is ok, that unease can linger and interfere with your life and routine. That’s when you know it’s anxiety.
Why anxiety happens
Anxiety is the result of persistent and excessive worries in your mind that you’re unable to shake off.
It could be caused by one or many things you’re worried about - including what’s happening right now and what may or may not happen in the future. Anxiety can be caused by a build-up of smaller stressful events. And some personalities also tend to feel more anxious than others.
Overall, anxiety can cause irritability, insomnia, anger, fatigue or tiredness and lead to digestive issues.
“Anxiety could present as a tightness in the chest, like a fist in the solar plexus
creating physical discomfort.”
- Deidre Dattoli
What causes anxiety?
The pandemic has amplified the anxiety that people are experiencing.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has found that people living with anxiety or depressive disorders has risen by 26% and 28% respectively in just one year. 1 in 8 people are now living with a mental disorder. So you might not be the only one struggling right now. Your friends or family could be going through it too.
Some common factors causing anxiety are:
Transitioning back to the office after working from home
Ageing parents and juggling your own family’s responsibilities
Constant sicknesses and a general feeling of being unwell
Economic worries and the rising cost of living
The mental health of your partner, children, or your own
A tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios or catastrophising
Trying to mind-read or worrying about your part in it if something seems off in your relationships
How can you manage anxiety?
Once you correctly identify whether you’re experiencing stress or anxiety, you can take some positive steps towards managing it.
Connect with your body
We’re guilty of spending so much time in our heads that we often live our lives disconnected from our body and its cues. Overlooking your body’s responses may lead to cognitive distortion, where we tend to exaggerate or think irrational thoughts when the reality might be completely different.
Whenever you find yourself reacting to something, pause and acknowledge it, label the emotion you’re feeling, and wait for it to pass. Keep in mind that an emotion only lasts 90 seconds. While it might feel uncomfortable as it’s passing through you, allow it to move through the body instead of suppressing it, because it could boil over later to disastrous effect.
• What’s really happening to me right this second?
• What emotion am I feeling? Is it anger, sadness?
• What caused this emotion to appear?
As you’re going through this emotional reset process, breathe in deeply and slowly to relax your body and mind.
Do this every time you feel anxious.
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