by Laura Geftman, LCSW
Stress and anxiety often share many of the same symptoms. It can be difficult to identify which you’re experiencing and how to best make it them stop. Learning the difference between anxiety and stress, and learning the symptoms is can be critical to ensure they don’t get worse.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an important basic survival function we all use as a coping skill. It’s your body’s natural response to stress. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point of their lives. It’s also a very normal response to stressful life events. It’s like an internal alarm system that get activated when we feel danger or threat.
A natural human reaction, anxiety is reflected in our bodies and minds. We feel a physical sensation when our bodies react to danger like:
- faster heartbeat
- panting or breathing faster
- tense muscles
- chest pains
- hot flashes or chills
- trembling hands or legs
These reactions are caused by a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals that prepare the body to deal with threats. Bodily changes can be mild to extreme. Ordinary anxiety comes and goes. It doesn’t interfere with your everyday life.
What is stress?
Similarly to anxiety, stress can wreak havoc on the the mind and body. Any experience that makes you feel angry, pressured, or even excited can bring on stress. Whether there’s a change in relationship, location or expectation, a required adaption creates a feeling that prompts physical symptoms that vary for each individual but often include:
- frequent urination sweating
- difficulty focusing
- difficulty sleeping
- dry mouth
How are anxiety and stress different?
Yes, anxiety and stress are often paired together and user interchangeably but they are actually really different. Generally stress is a short-term experience whereas anxiety is a sustained mental health disorder that can be triggered by stress.
The biggest difference is the event or idea that is causing symptoms. Stress is related to external stimuli- money, traffic, or deadline, etc… It is directly associated with something happening in your life that is causing you to feel stressed. However that which stresses you is manageable. You roll up your selves and get it done!
The helplessness associated with anxiety is different. It’s a reaction to internal stimuli. The alarm bells are going off inside you and the trigger isn’t alway apparent. Anxiety is often linked to fear, and avoidance only makes it worse. Ultimately anxiety is much more pervasive.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders
There are a range of feelings you can experience with anxiety, and everyone experiences anxiety differently. Therefore it’s important to know about the various ways anxiety may present in your life.
The first step is recognizing the signs of anxiety disorders. When symptoms become to much to handle and prevent you from living your life as intended, they could be signs of an anxiety disorder. Here are some of the most common symptoms you maybe experiencing disordered anxiety:
- Excessive Worrying is the most common symptom of an anxiety disorder. This kind of worrying is so severe that it truly makes concentration, decision making and completing tasks of daily living very difficult. Events that trigger worrying with anxiety disorders are typically disproportionate, too much and/or unreasonable (source). To truly be of clinical concern, excessive worrying is difficult to control for at least six months (source).
- Difficulty Concentrating is often reported as a symptom of anxiety. Studies show that anxiety can be disruptive to your short-term memory (source). And the worse your anxiety is, the worst your memory is as well. Due to the difficulty concentrating and stifled memory, those struggling with anxiety too often find it harder to perform and complete ordinary tasks.
- Restlessness This symptom is specially common in children and teens but anyone experiencing anxiety can be made to feel an urge to move about, “on the edge,” jittery, or uncomfortable. Although this sign alone would not denote an anxiety disorder, it can be a symptom if experienced frequently for more than a week (source).
- Tense Muscles It’s undeniable that when you’re anxious, you feel it in your body. People often feel anxiety in their shoulders, neck, back and chest. While it’s not fully understood why muscle tension is associated with anxiety, it’s a frequent symptom of anxiety. Practicing muscle relaxation therapy has shown to be as effective as cognitive behavioral psychotherapy (sources 1, 2).
- Irrational Fears Spiders, dogs, crowds, blood, thunder/lightening, enclosed spaces, heights, flying, water… Phobias are extreme fear of anxiety related to a situation or specific object. They tend to by more common for those who identify as female and start at an early age (sources 1, 2).
- Feeling Agitated When you are anxious your brain believes you have sensed danger, and therefore it prepares to protect you from the treat. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in to take care of business. This can also trigger bodily effects including sweaty palms, shaky hands, racing pulse and/or dry mouth (source). Senses are heightened. Your body also supplies your muscles with more blood from your digestive system in case you need it to for fight or flight (source). The trouble comes in when you are not able to reduce these effects. When these bodily reactions aren’t able to be quelled in situations that are not of concern, they can be debilitating. The fear then only lives in your body for an extended period of time (source).
- Irritability Becoming frustrated or easily upset is often a response to anxiety. Reacting to feelings of all the sign and symptoms cause many to be more short-tempered which is at its worst when anxiety is running high (source).
- Fatigue While anxiety is generally related to restlessness, hyperactivity or arousal, fatigue can also be a concern. There is evidence that it may be related to hormonal effects of chronic anxiety (source). Fatigue can be chronic or as a result after a panic attack. Other symptoms of anxiety including insomnia and muscle tension also contribute to this hormonal effect of chronic anxiety (source). The causes of fatigue will need to be closely assessed as it can also be a symptom of depression and medical conditions (source).
- Trouble Falling or Staying Asleep There’s no doubt- sleep and anxiety are very closely connected. Trouble falling asleep and staying asleep are the two most commonly reported issues related to anxiety (source). However there’s still a chicken before the egg relationship between anxiety and insomnia as it’s unclear which which effects the other more (sources 1, 2). Treating anxiety tends to improve sleep, too.
- Panic Attacks create an overwhelming, intense sense of fear. This isn’t just any fear- it’s extreme. This type of fear comes with chest tightness, shortness of breathe, nausea, rapid heartbeat, sweating, and feeling like you have lost control or maybe dying (source). Extreme.
- Avoiding Social Situations Sure there are all kinds of places, events, meetings and appointments we don’t look forward to and don’t want to go to. Low self-esteem, high self-criticism, and depression are one thing. Avoiding social situation related to anxiety is different. Some people truly become fearful about upcoming social situations. Anticipating being embarrassed, humiliated or judged can cause some not to attend or participate in gathering. Those struggling with this may seem snobby but they are actually shy, quiet and distressed dealing with their fear and anxiety (source).
While the majority of these signs and symptoms are normal and common, only when they prevent you from accomplishing regular tasks throughout your day should they be truly concerning. It’s also worth noting that anxiety disorders are not diagnosed when one of these symptoms are present but various symptoms together for a continued period of time.
Seeing a Mental Health Professional
If you become concerned about your level of anxiety, it’s best to seek the support of a mental health professional- such as a social worker, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. When you see someone professionally trained in mental health care, they can help you understand the difficulties you’re experiencing.
Sure just the thought of seeking mental healthcare can create more anxiety. You may think they will make you talk about your past. Or that you won’t connect with them to feel comfortable to talk about anything. Maybe you’re afraid to cry in front of anyone let alone a stranger. Worse- you think they’ll put you in a hospital, rehab or institution.
Please know I don’t bring this up to elicit fear but to say- those who work in the mental health field are trained to work with you at your own pace. You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to. Ever. The idea is to create a safe space for you to feel comfortable to connect with someone who can help you understand your symptoms and learn to manage them. Therapist are legally bound to uphold privacy and confidentiality. That means they can only repeat what you’ve said to them if they are concerned about your safety or the safety of others. Anything else you tell a therapist, they cannot repeat to anyone else without your consent. You literally have to sign paperwork stating they can talk to others about what you’ve shared with them.
About Laura Geftman, LCSW
Laura Geftman, LCSW is the Founder of The Calm, Cool & Collected and a practicing therapist. Beyond all things cannabis and mental health, Laura is passionate about developing greater understanding for kindness and acceptance. In her free time, Laura can be found on her yoga mat, in a kayak or singing karaoke.