Stress and anxiety at some point in their lives. Depending on the level of severity, they can detrimentally impact one’s quality of life. Although stress and anxiety share many of the same emotional and physical symptoms – uneasiness, tension, headaches, high blood pressure and loss of sleep – they have very different origins. Determining which one you’re experiencing is critical to finding an effective treatment plan and feeling better.
Stress and anxiety are not abnormal feelings or reactions. We all experience these at times and to varying degrees. Either can become overwhelming and disruptive to your life, and yet there are important differences. Most notable is that anxiety can be a specific mental illness, a type of anxiety disorder. Regardless of whether your struggles are related to stress, anxiety, or both, it is important to know when to get professional help. Treatment can help you manage your emotions and reactions, reducing stress and anxiety in your life.
There’s a fine line between stress and anxiety. Both are emotional responses, but stress is typically caused by an external trigger. The trigger can be short-term, such as a work deadline or a fight with a loved one or long-term, such as being unable to work, discrimination, or chronic illness. People under stress experience mental and physical symptoms, such as irritability, anger, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive troubles, and difficulty sleeping.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. Anxiety leads to a nearly identical set of symptoms as stress: insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability.
Stress is a response to an external cause, such as a tight deadline at work or having an argument with a friend, and subsides once the situation has been resolved. Because stress is caused by external factors, tackling these head-on can help. If you’re experiencing prolonged, chronic stress, there are many ways to manage and reduce your symptoms, including physical activity, breathing exercises, adequate sleep and taking time connect with others.
Anxiety is a person’s specific reaction to stress; its origin is internal. Anxiety is typically characterized by a “persistent feeling of apprehension or dread” in situations that are not actually threatening. Unlike stress, anxiety persists even after a concern has passed. In more severe cases, anxiety can escalate into an anxiety disorder, the most common mental health issue in the U.S. Anxiety disorders are classified in a variety of ways: generalized anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Another type of anxiety disorder is panic disorder, which is marked by sudden attacks of anxiety that may leave a person sweating, dizzy, and gasping for air. Anxiety may also manifest in the form of specific phobias (such as fear of flying) or as social anxiety, which is marked by a pervasive fear of social situations.
Anxiety disorders can be treated with psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. One of the most widely used therapeutic approaches is cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing maladaptive thought patterns related to the anxiety. Another potential treatment is exposure therapy, which involves confronting anxiety triggers in a safe, controlled way in order to break the cycle of fear around the trigger.