“Ugh, I’m so stressed out from watching that movie! I need a vacation!”
How often do you hear such statements?
Words from the mental health dictionary such as “stress” have steadily creeped into everyday vocabulary. It is definitely a welcome change for mental health awareness, which strives to un-peel itself from the stigma associated with it.
However, such change demands that you exercise due diligence with sensitive subjects.
It is vital that you are able to distinguish between stress and anxiety, words that are often interchangeably used, in order to understand them better for yourself and for friends or family who might need some direction.
Stress and anxiety are the result of physiological responses triggered by hormones in your brain. What is the goal? Protecting you. They are reflexive survival mechanisms, and it is important to remember that they are mandated by the constantly evolving brain.
The first element to highlight in this conversation is that stress and anxiety cannot be categorized as all bad. In other words, humans would have succumbed to predators millions of years ago but for these instantaneous responses.
That being said, let’s look at four ways to distinguish them for better understanding.
1. Perceived Threat
Stress is, almost always, the result of an existing threat or challenge — a looming project deadline or a competitive exam. When you know you have to confront a reality that could cost you something, your heart starts to pound, your breathing becomes rapid, and your palms get sweaty. This is a perfectly normal response, which can sometimes get you excited to prove your mettle.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is often a reaction to stress. It is a persistent feeling of restlessness, worry and discomfort. The ambiguity and the overarching nature of symptoms could make it difficult to pinpoint the very presence or exact nature of the threat. It is accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, digestive difficulties, insomnia, and even heart disease.
According to the American Psychological Association, stress can be classified into three types based on duration of symptoms–acute, episodic acute and chronic stress.
Anxiety disorders are more complex and are classified depending on the type of trigger — generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder, etc.
3. Type of Threat
Only a real, tangible and external threat can produce the stress response in your body — deadlines, due dates or a sudden change. This is the most effective way to identify and label your symptoms.
Repeated exposure–for instance, on a day-to-day basis–to such threats can lead to chronic stress. Chronic stress can sometimes push you to make irrational, inconclusive judgements about your ability to handle stressful situations in the future.
That would result in anxiety, a persistent feeling of incompetence and impending failure regardless of the type of challenge presented. Anxiety clouds your judgment, and you end up always anticipating the worst possible outcome. For instance, you may not have an upcoming exam, but you believe that even if there was one, you would fail anyway.
As is evident, the threat is internal in this case. Anxiety occurs due to the accumulation of negative thoughts regarding your ability to overcome life’s obstacles, all while gauging your abilities against your peers’.
With acute stress, the symptoms are short-lived, and they disappear with the stressor. For instance, once you’ve completed the exam, your brain stops producing the stress hormones, and your body returns to its normal functioning.
However, the road to recovery from anxiety can be long and winding, as it demands a reprogramming of your internal beliefs. It requires you to work with professionals to unlearn counterintuitive judgments of yourself and your ability to function effectively in society. In some cases, your psychiatrist may even prescribe medications to better manage your symptoms.
Does Nomenclature Really Matter?
If you’re experiencing restlessness, sleep deprivation, difficulty breathing, indigestion, palpitations or any other symptom that directly affects your day to day functioning and quality of life, it really doesn’t matter what it’s called, does it?
It’s strongly recommended that you seek professional help immediately. Medical care will alleviate symptoms and therapy will empower you with strategies to cope with stress and anxiety going forward.
At Prairie Health, we understand that the last thing you want to be doing is stressing about already being stressed!
That’s why we are here to walk alongside you and relieve you of any stress associated with your recovery process.