Most of us experience anxiety and stress at some point in our lifetime.
Dependent on the level of the severity of the anxiety or stress, it can have detrimental impacts on our health. Determining which you are experiencing is imperative to finding a treatment plan that is effective in managing the symptoms and helping you feel better.
Why Anxiety and Stress are often Confused
Anxiety and stress are often confused as both can exhibit similar emotional responses.
However, stress typically arises in response to an external trigger. In a perfect world, the duration of the stress response will correspond with the trigger – once the trigger has been managed, the body will return to its baseline state. The trigger can be short-term, for example, a fight with a loved one or a work deadline or it can be long-term, such as unemployment or chronic illness.
When experiencing stress it is common to feel irritable or angry, have difficulty sleeping, and experience fatigue, digestive problems and muscle pain. A good indicator you are experiencing stress is the cause and duration. For example, you are worried about an upcoming work presentation and you may even have trouble sleeping the night before. If the presentation goes well and the feelings of worry go away, then you are experiencing stress.
Conversely, anxiety is characterized by persistent and excessive worries despite the absence of an external trigger. It is an internal response to stress in situations that are not actually threatening.
Anxiety can present with almost identical symptoms as stress such as: difficulty concentrating, insomnia, muscle tension, fatigue and irritability.
The key difference is anxiety is typically ongoing – even once the stressor has been dealt with. Contrary to the example above, if you are worried about a work presentation, the presentation goes well and the next day you’re still worrying and obsessing, and finding it very difficult to control the worry – then you may be experiencing anxiety.
Taking into account the above, anxiety and stress are also different in their relationship to time: Stress is more often than not about the present, while anxiety is frequently about a perceived worry about the future.
Managing Anxiety and Stress
There are several techniques and strategies which can help with managing anxiety and stress, such as:
- Getting enough sleep;
- Eating a balanced and healthy diet;
- Practicing mindfulness;
- Getting regular exercise;
- Limiting caffeine and alcohol consumption;
- Identifying triggers that cause stress;
- Talking to friends and family;
- Keeping a journal;
- Scheduling time for hobbies.
When should I seek professional help?
Stress and anxiety are both normal emotional responses, however, can become difficult to manage. If stress or anxiety begins to overwhelm you and interfere with your ability to function, you could potentially benefit from professional therapy and treatment.
If you answer yes to any of the below, a psychologist is able to teach you useful strategies for coping with stress and anxiety, and for changing your patterns of thought and behaviour that are affecting your mental health.
Is your answer Yes to any of these:
- Your emotions and reactions become overwhelming, difficult to manage and cause you significant distress.
- Stress or anxiety begin to interfere with important parts of your life such as work, school, personal relationships and responsibilities.
- You have experienced trauma in the past or recently.
- Your feelings of stress and anxiety are leading to thoughts of hopelessness, self harm or suicide.
- You experience other mental health disorders that are either triggered by stress or anxiety or are co-occurring at the same time. These could include depression, substance use disorders or any other mental health symptoms of concern to you.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the gold standard therapy used to treat anxiety. CBT helps you identify and change unhelpful thinking patterns that exacerbate and maintain your anxiety, and so improve the way you feel.
Author: Tara Pisano, BA (Psych) (Hons), M Psych.
Tara Pisano is a Brisbane psychologist with a special interest in early intervention in adolescents and young adults, as this is when three quarters of mental health conditions emerge. In her practice, she draws on a range of evidence-based therapies such as CBT, DBT, IPT, ACT and Motivational Interviewing, to promote recovery and positive outcomes.
Tara is not currently taking bookings, however, we have a number of clinicians available for bookings. To make an appointment for counselling please visit our webpage here to learn about our highly qualified clinicians, or call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.
- American Psychological Association. (2020). What’s the difference between stress and anxiety? http://www.apa.org/topics/stress/anxiety-difference
- American Psychological Association (2020). Stress in America™ 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis.
- Anxiety disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml.
- Ellis, M. (2020). 5 Ways to Tell the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety: When to Get Help. Bridges to Recovery. https://www.bridgestorecovery.com/blog/5-ways-to-tell-the-difference-between-stress-and-anxiety-when-to-get-help/