Anxiety and stress both originate from the same source. Stress is a normal everyday response to life. We wake up, we have some stress that gets us out of bed, and it seems to be motivational. We experience a lot of stressors in our day-to-day (getting up in the morning, completing chores and work, sleeping on time, fights at home, and others).
While we try to be as optimized as possible, with time we are also activating our stress response system. What this does physiologically is it keeps us tense physically, but it also releases a lot of stress hormones like cortisol. Over time, too much of that in your system leads to chronic stress. Anxiety comes in when the stressor goes away and the stress still remains.
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Stress vs Anxiety: What’s the Difference
Most people talk about stress, anxiety and worry interchangeably as if they are the same thing. For example: "My test really stressed me out. I was so worried about it." or "I am so anxious about this upcoming performance that is making my stomach hurt." The lack of differentiation between these leads to difficulties in knowing how to resolve their effects.
Stress is the physiological response to fear - so it is about what's going on inside our bodies when we are reacting to something that's perceived as threatening or dangerous. It is a fight, flight, and freeze response. It is rooted in the reptilian brain. It's instinctual and unconscious. Stress serves the perfect function in helping us escape real threats, for example, the sweating that comes along with stress helps us stay cool or the adrenaline helps us perform in situations where we have to run away or fight off a physical threat.
However, if stress becomes chronic and remains unresolved, it can have serious consequences in our body. High blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and chronic illness are all linked to stress.
Anxiety is at the intersection of thinking and biological response. It is rooted in the limbic system and it has to do with this feeling of dread or like something bad is going to happen. Anxiety helps people be watchful for danger, but if it dominates our lives it can make it hard for us to feel joy and to move forward in the direction of our values. If we want to learn to manage our anxiety, we need to learn to tailor our interventions to different aspects of stress.
How Do I Manage Stress and Anxiety?
To manage our worries, we need to target those thoughts with cognitive interventions - changing how we think and changing what we're constantly imagining and visualizing in our minds. If we want to change the stress response, we need to take a bottom-up approach by incorporating our body's reactions and responses into interventions that change those reactions and responses in a healthy way. Here are some ways to manage stress and anxiety:
The first step to feeling better is enhancing your awareness. Start paying attention to what it feels like when you are experiencing anxiety. Is it rooted in your mind? Do you have thoughts or are you imagining some future catastrophe? Or is it rooted in your body? Do you have any physiological reactions like, an upset stomach or sweaty hands?
As you start to pay more attention to these reactions and gain more awareness around them, you will develop greater abilities to learn how to respond to these instinctual reactions in a more helpful way. Try journaling to understand these experiences.
2) Remain Connected
According to studies, whether it is stress or anxiety, it is important to maintain social connections. When life gets stressful, having a strong support network of family, friends, neighbors, and loved ones on your side can help you keep your responsibilities in check.
Start by helping with neighborhood organizations or taking up new interests if you don't yet feel like you belong to a community. The first step in fixing a problem or choosing a course of action is to be honest and open about it. Never be embarrassed to seek guidance from friends, mentors, or colleagues. They might even be able to assist you in resolving your issue.
3) Engage in Relaxation
It may be challenging to unwind if you frequently experience anxiety. You can teach your body and mind to relax by using deep breathing exercises, soothing music, guided visualization exercises, and relaxing activities like painting. Anxiety frequently centers on the potential future. You can learn to stay present in the present moment by practicing mindfulness practices like meditation.
Both anxiety and stress can result in symptoms like a racing heart, trouble breathing, headaches, insomnia, muscle tightness, irritability, restlessness, and difficulty focusing.
Identifying and avoiding triggers, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, practicing mindfulness, fostering relationships with others, and taking care of oneself are all examples of coping mechanisms. Anxiety disorders and other related mental health illnesses may benefit from talk therapy and medication.
Janvi Kapur is a counselor with a Master's degree in applied psychology with a specialization in clinical psychology.
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