On the surface they seem identical. Delve deeper to see how they’re not.
All of us have experienced some form of stress and anxiety. Stress can even cause us to become anxious. While similarities between the two exist, they are quite different. Simply put: the main disparity between stress and anxiety is that stress is the temporary result of an outside force acting on you, while anxiety is your emotional reaction to that force that lingers long after the problem is solved.
When we’re late for work, worried about a test, or concerned about a job promotion, we know that the stress we’re feeling will be short-lived. “This type of stress tends to resolve itself once the situation or event is resolved,” said James Korman, PsyD, ACT, and director of the Behavioral Health and Cognitive Therapy Center at Summit Medical Group in Summit, N.J.
Stress can actually be beneficial. When we become stressed, our awareness becomes heightened. Stress increases cortisol (which is known as the stress hormone) levels in our body making us more focused and attuned to our surroundings. It can even boost our confidence because we’re sharper and more attentive to the situations we’re experiencing.
“Anxiety on the other hand,” Korman continued, “has two primary symptoms. One is worry, where people are repeatedly thinking or ruminating about things and the ways to solve it. The other is physical; you can experience muscle tension, your heart races, you have shortness of breath, and you may experience headaches, stomach aches, sweating, or dizziness, all of which are signs that your ‘fight or flight’ response has been activated.”
Knowing the difference between stress and anxiety is important because “anxiety becomes problematic once it’s extended past the point of normalcy,” Korman explained. “If anxiety goes on for too long, it can begin to impede and hurt your ability to perform daily activities and can eventually become an anxiety disorder.”
With anxiety, the psychological stress can affect us physically, emotionally, and mentally to the point of avoiding situations and not coping rationally with them. Following are signs that you may be anxious:
• You’re constantly worried or on edge.
• Your anxiety interferes with your ability to work.
• You anticipate the worst.
• You have irrational fears.
• You think something bad will happen if you don’t follow the rules or don’t do a task a certain way.
• You avoid people, places, and situations.
When it comes to stress versus anxiety, anxiety cannot be prevented. You can, however, lessen and manage the symptoms. Korman recommends talking to a cognitive behavioral therapist. A therapist can teach you that it’s not the events that cause anxiety; it’s how you think about these events that make you feel anxious. “For instance, he said, “people with anxiety tend to spend most of their time thinking and worrying about the future.”
A therapist will help you identify, understand, and change negative thinking and behavior patterns. You’ll focus more on the present and less on the future.
Your therapist may also recommend alternative methods, such as stress and relaxation exercises. Meditation, yoga, and even aerobics can be used to treat anxiety. These natural treatments raise serotonin levels, which affect our moods and behaviors. Serotonin can make us feel relaxed and happy.
Your doctor may also recommend that you cut down on caffeine. Coffee, tea, cola, and energy drinks contain caffeine, which increases your body’s heart rate, blood pressure, and tension levels. He may also try to help you normalize your sleep patterns; a good night’s sleep often helps you view stressors with a better perspective.
Many people with an anxiety disorder take prescription medications. Your doctor may prescribe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Popular anti-anxiety SSRIs include Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro, and Zoloft.
You should also know that there are no quick fixes. The good news is that with the help of a good therapist, you can manage your anxiety.
April 03, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA