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What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

Stress anBusy women looking stressedd anxiety are a natural part of the fight or flight response and the body’s reaction to danger. The purpose of this response is to ensure a person is alert, focused, and ready to deal with a threat. However, some stress is positive: Imagine standing in front of a crowd to give a speech and hitting it out of the park. Stressful? Certainly. But also challenging and satisfying. Both stress and anxiety are normal, although they can sometimes overwhelm people.

Stress V anxiety?

The main difference between stress and anxiety is that stress is a response to a threat in a situation and anxiety is a reaction to that stress. As stress and anxiety are both a part of the body’s natural fight or flight response, when someone feels under threat, their body releases stress hormones. Stress hormones cause the heart to beat faster, resulting in more blood pumping to the organs and limbs. This response allows a person to be ready to either fight or run away. They also breathe faster, and the blood pressure goes up. At the same time, a person’s senses become sharper, and their body releases nutrients into the blood to ensure all parts have the energy they need. This process happens really quickly, and this is what stress is defined as. Anxiety is the body’s response to that stress.

There is a fine line between stress and anxiety because both are emotional responses but usually stress is caused by an external trigger. This stress trigger can be more short term (e.g., an upcoming work deadline or being stuck in a traffic jam) or it can be more long term (e.g., financial difficulty or personal health issues). During times of stress whether short or long term we can experience both physical and mental health symptoms, such as, difficulty sleeping, digestive issues, muscle pain, irritability, or anger. What is stressful to one person is not necessarily stressful to another. Alternatively, anxiety is explained as continuous and excessive worrying that remains even in the absence of a stressor. Anxiety can also cause those physical and mental health symptoms that we associate with stress.

Anxiety and stress respond well to similar coping mechanisms, and as a starting point we can try to incorporate good sleep hygiene, regular exercise, and a healthy diet into our lives. However, sometimes when stressful experiences are negative and cannot be avoided or if the stress or anxiety becomes chronic, we may need to find other additional ways in managing our stress and anxiety.

Man stressed and anxious

How to cope with stress and anxiety:

1. Try to eliminate the stressors:

Whether or not you experience an intolerable level of psychological stress depends on the intensity of the situation and also the person experiencing it. How you perceive and think about a stressor can also make a big impact on how you respond. It’s not always possible to escape a stressful situation or avoid a problem, but you can try to reduce the stress you are feeling. Evaluate whether you can change the situation that is causing you stress, perhaps by dropping some responsibility, relaxing your standards, or asking for help.

2. Utilising social support:

Strong social support can improve resilience to stress. Reach out strategically. Some friends or family members may be good at listening and sympathizing. Others might excel at practical help, like bringing over a home-cooked meal or covering an hour of childcare. Giving support can also increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions.

3. Relax your muscles:

Because stress causes muscles to tense, being stressed out can create tension headaches, backaches, and general fatigue. Combat stress and these symptoms with stretches, massage, or warm baths. Or try progressive muscle relaxation, a method that has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve overall mental health. To practice progressive muscle relaxation, get in a comfortable position and choose a muscle group, like your lower leg muscles. Inhale and contract the muscles for 5 to 10 seconds, then exhale and release the muscles suddenly. Relax for 10 or more seconds and then move on to the next muscle group, working your way up the body. Another option is passive progressive muscle relaxation. This technique is similar to progressive muscle relaxation but skips the tensing step. Instead, simply picture each muscle group one at a time and focus on relaxing that portion of the body.

4. Meditate:

A strong body of research shows that mindfulness and meditation can reduce psychological stress and anxiety — even short-term mindfulness or meditation programs work. To get started, set aside five minutes in a quiet place to sit and breathe. Focus on the present moment; if stray thoughts intrude, acknowledge them, and then let them go. Don’t judge yourself for any mental wavering. Gently refocus and bring the attention back to the present moment.

5. Take a moment in nature:

woman relaxing in nature

Research has found that green space improves mood. Even nature videos can speed the recovery from stress compared with videos of urban scenes. Taking a moment to notice nature — even in the form of a bustling city park — can refocus and calm your mind.

6. Keep your pleasurable activities:

When life gets overwhelming, people often drop their leisure activities first. But cutting yourself off from pleasure can be counterproductive. Even when time is tight, look for opportunities to do something for yourself, whether that means reading a book, singing along to your favourite tunes, or streaming your favourite show on Netflix.

If your stress or anxiety does not respond to these management techniques, or if you feel that either stress or anxiety are affecting your day-to-day functioning or mood, consider talking to a mental health professional who can help you understand what you are experiencing and provide you additional coping tools to manage stress and anxiety effectively. If you would like to avail of counselling for any anxieties you may be experiencing, or for help with setting your goals, you can book a session with us on 01 611 1719 or by emailing [email protected]

Written by; Philippa Carroll a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist, APPIICP


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