Fitness, Mind & Body

A psychologist on how to tell the difference between stress and anxiety


For many people, stress and anxiety can feel overwhelming, causing an immense amount of emotional strain that can often affect a person physically as well. Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno explains the difference and what you can do if you suffer from either.

Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat, when the body’s defences kick into gear known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. It is a response to something happening in a person’s life that has caused pressure or uncertainty, often resulting in mental and physical symptoms, such as irritability, mood swings, anger outbursts, fatigue, muscle pain or digestive troubles.

Prolonged stress can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, or other physical health issues like fatigue and even heart disease.

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Effective stress management is a skill that every person can benefit from, however you need to be able to recognise the signs of stress. There are few other stress identifiers that can show stress is taking a toll:

Mood swings and irritability

Lack of focus

Appetite changes

Weight changes

Physical sickness

Getting a handle on stress isn’t always easy. However, there are some things you can do to come out of it.

Pay close attention to it

With any kind of stress, it is important to be conscious of being present and being in control of your feelings. Try to get in tune with what is setting off your “fight or flight” response.

Change your perspective

Stress doesn’t have to be debilitating, it can be an opportunity to push you into doing something great. Shifting your perspective into a positive mindset will allow you to take on stress to your benefit.

Channel it to your benefit

Many people don’t realise that we can actually utilise the adrenaline and dopamine high to centre focus and alertness on something important. Use the experience of getting through a stressful situation as a positive future reference. Channelling the feelings can make you more productive, motivated and efficient.

Take the time to re-set

Take time to wind down effectively by implementing tactics that allow you to re-set such as breathing techniques or meditation. Try to slow down and centre yourself, even if you feel like you don’t have time to do that.

Seek help

Whether it is talking to a friend or loved one, or seeking help from a professional, knowing when to reach out is important. Don’t wait until the stress feels all consuming, instead recognise that you do not need to suffer in silence.

What is anxiety?

Stress typically leaves a person more vulnerable to anxiety, however many sufferers can often find it hard to tell the difference between the two. Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a ‘stressor’ (a stressor can be determined as an event or environment that someone could consider demanding, challenging, or threatening to them).

Anxiety symptoms can vary in intensity, ranging from mild to severe, with symptoms often becoming gradually more intense over time. Anxiety triggers can be different from person to person, however there are some common factors that are often seen with people who suffer from anxiety:

Environmental factors

Psychological disorders

Genetics

Brain chemistry

Substance abuse

Past or childhood experiences

Current lifestyle factors

Managing anxiety isn’t always easy however there are some strategies that can help ease the feelings.

Take a moment to reassess

Sometimes people feel an overwhelming amount of anxiety which can ease if you are able to take a second to remind yourself that things might be ok. Thinking about things logically and trying to come to a clear state of mind can help those overwhelming feelings.

Limit alcohol and caffeine consumption

These substances can often be triggering or make anxiety feel worse.

Ensure you’re getting enough sleep

This can be a vicious circle because unfortunately, anxiety can cause sleeping problems, and new research suggests sleep deprivation can cause an anxiety disorder. Try to practice any methods that will allow you to sleep better.

Exercise daily

Regular exercise can help ease anxiety by releasing feel-good endorphins.

Ensure you are eating a nutritious diet

Many people don’t realise that certain foods or food additives can cause physical reactions which in turn can lead to shifts in mood, including anxiety. Try to ensure that you are avoiding bad foods by eating healthy, balanced meals.

Practice breathing techniques

Anxiety can often cause a person to feel breathless, but the good news is that breathing techniques can often alleviate symptoms of anxiety.

Visit a psychologist

While friends and loved ones can be great to provide an ear to listen and shoulder to cry on, a professional can provide you with some practical tactics to help alleviate feelings of anxiety.

Regular counselling sessions or talk therapy can be an extremely effective method for treating an array of mental health concerns. Just like you’d see a personal trainer at the gym to work on your physical fitness, a psychologist can be the personal trainer for your mind.

So, what’s the difference between the two?

There is a fine line however the key difference between stress and anxiety is that stress is often triggered by an event. Both are emotional responses, but stress is typically caused by an external trigger like facing change, being under pressure, a looming deadline, divorce, moving to a new house, loss of job etc.

These event triggers are causing the emotional response whereas anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, or uneasiness that doesn’t necessarily need to be caused by something. Anxiety can develop throughout any stage in an adult’s life and the triggers can vary from person to person. A person’s mental health state can often be affected by complex factors that can range from environment to genetics.

Nancy Sokarno is a psychologist at Lysn, a digital mental health company with world class wellbeing technology. It helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist while being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.