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What is the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

We’ve all experienced stress and so we have a general idea of what it is. It’s defined as a feeling of unease caused by an outside source. From an evolutionary perspective, it serves the purpose of protecting us from dangers that we encounter in our environment. Think about a caveman who encounters a saber tooth tiger while wandering the tundra one day- in order to survive, this caveman will need to be able to run away or fight off the tiger, so he isn’t killed and eaten for lunch. The symptoms of stress can include physical things such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, heavy breathing, vision changes, decreased digestion, muscle tension, etc., all of which will help him to protect himself (Blood is diverted from the stomach to muscle in the arms and legs for running and fighting, vision is narrowed so he won’t be distracted, his concentration narrows, the heart beats faster so more blood is sent to vital areas and so it is present for healing if needed, etc). You also might experience emotional symptoms such as irritability, decreased concentration, or decreased motivation. All of these changes are caused by the sympathetic system and are triggered by the “fight or flight response”. When stress becomes long-term, it can cause problems such as high blood pressure, insomnia, constipation, weight gain, and heart disease, among other things.

Anxiety is very similar to stress in that both are triggered by the sympathetic system via the “fight or flight response”. However, anxiety is caused more by internal worries than by an external stress. For example, you might be stressed about a work project or your child being sick, whereas anxiety is excessive worrying even if there is no external source present. The physical manifestations of anxiety are very similar to those of stress because they are both caused by the activation of the sympathetic system. Anxiety is generally more difficult to cope with because there isn’t a cause that can be pointed at and blamed and it is often of longer duration. However, since they both come via the sympathetic system, the coping strategies that we use for stress will also be helpful for anxiety.

Helpful Coping Strategies

The following is a list of healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety:

1. Regular exercise

2. Following a good diet

3. Meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, or other relaxation exercises

4. Deep breathing exercises

5. Talking with friends or your support system

6. Get a good night’s sleep. The current recommendation is 7-8 hours per night.

7. Being out in nature and in the sun can have a calming effect

8. Setting goals for your day or week and tracking your progress

9. Examine your thoughts for any negative thinking that is holding you back. Try to reframe or change for more positive, or neutral, thoughts

10. Participate in a leisure activity that you enjoy and find engaging

What to do when self-help doesn’t work

If you try the coping strategies above and still are experiencing significant stress or anxiety, then it might be time to talk with a mental health professional for anxiety treatment. A professional counselor can determine if you are experiencing an anxiety disorder. There are several different disorders possible including Generalized Anxiety, Phobias, Social Anxiety, or Panic Disorder. These anxiety disorders are all treatable with talk therapy, medications, or a combination of the two. Please don't hesitate to talk with someone.


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