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  • Writer's pictureZeina Soued, PsyD

Stress versus Anxiety: How to Identify the Difference and Manage Them Both

In the fast-paced, whirlwind of modern life, it is no wonder that stress and anxiety often weave their way into our daily experiences. However, these two concepts are not the same thing. To understand the intricacies of these often-misunderstood experiences, we will learn what each term means so you can gain a better understanding of your experience with one or both and to learn how you can care for yourself.


Let’s start with understanding the experience of stress.

Man stressed out sitting in front of a laptop

Chronic versus Acute Stress

Acute stress is short-term and typically in reaction to stressors such as an argument with a friend, failing an exam, or a broken appliance. The theme with acute stress is that in the moment the incident might feel very upsetting, but you will be able to recognize your stress alleviating when using a coping skill (e.g., going for a walk, mindful breathing).


One the other hand, when the stress seems to be on-going and does not seem to let go, then you might be experiencing chronic stress. The source of chronic stress is variable and depends on the circumstances one might encounter. For example, some types of stressors (e.g., toxic relationship) might be avoidable (e.g., by setting boundaries in a relationship) while others might be unavoidable and encountered each day (e.g., poverty or discrimination). It is important to recognize that each individual reacts to stress differently, and so some might be able to endure a stressful situation compared to another that might result in experiencing chronic stress.


Moreover, the negative impact of chronic stress can influence reactions both to physical and mental health. Some common reactions to stress include difficulty concentrating, fatigue, migraine/headaches, and gastrointestinal issues. For example, folks with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have reported that their symptoms increase when they experience psychological stress (Qin HY et. al, 2014). Additional physical reactions with chronic stress may include negative impact on one’s immune system, heart health, and sleep.


Qin HY, Cheng CW, Tang XD, Bian ZX. Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome. World J Gastroenterol. 2014 Oct 21;20(39):14126-31.


Anxiety

Anxiety may appear similar to stress in regard to symptoms, however it is characterized by persistent and excessive worry that does not alleviate even if the stressor is absent. Another key piece about anxiety is that it is often focused on the future and may include reoccurring intrusive thoughts. Additionally, folks may change their behavior to avoid certain situations because of their worries. It may also be helpful to differentiate anxiety and fear, as they are terms sometimes used interchangeably. Fear is considered directly related to a present specific threat and often short-lived.


Now that you may have a better understanding about the experience of stress versus anxiety, practicing healthy coping skills can help how you react to stress and anxiety.


Methods to Cope

  • Take a look at your social circle. One of the best methods to cope with stress and anxiety is to spend time with friends or family members that are empathic and listen to your concerns. It is also important to recognize how members of your social circle may worsen your stress or anxiety or possibly invalidate your experience. Thus, take time to observe how you feel when you reach out to your friend or family member as well as how they have supported you in the past. Additionally, members of your social circle may have other strengths and be helpful in alternative ways, such as engaging in acts of service (e.g., providing you a cooked meal).

  • How is your relationship with nutrition? Sometimes when one is stressed or anxious your appetite may lessen but also may increase in cortisol. When cortisol is increased you may crave food items higher in fat and sugar, which in the long-term may negatively impact your heart health. The goal is to pay attention to your nutrition and see how to provide your body nutrients to reduce stress and maintain balanced health.

  • Another key factor is to engage in coping activities that you can find yourself practicing daily. This may include meditation, physical activity (e.g., dancing, going for a walk), progressive muscle relaxation, and sleep hygiene. Taking the time (e.g., even 10 minutes!) to step away from your routine to care for yourself regularly can over time help you with decreasing your reactions to stress and anxiety. For example, engaging in meditative practice may positively result in being able to fall asleep sooner and achieve more restful sleep.

  • Asking for help. It may seem simple, but many individuals struggle with recognizing they need a change in their workload or believe that working harder is the only solution to managing their responsibilities. Moreover, if you engage in coping methods but find that it may not be changing your stress or anxiety, then you may benefit from working with a mental health provider that can process your concerns and develop a plan to manage your stress and anxiety more effectively.

Overall, stress and anxiety are responses to stressors in our lives and sometimes they may become chronic or overwhelming where you may feel that talking with a mental health provider would be beneficial for you. If you are interested to work with one of our therapists, please reach out here.


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