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Is It Anxiety or Stress?

Chronic anxiety and chronic stress often share a lot in common. They have similar emotional symptoms, they result in similar physiological reactions, and can easily be confused with the other. In a fast paced world, experiencing stress and anxiety is common and frequently people experience them simultaneously; however, it is important to understand the etiology of the symptoms and luckily there are differences which can help tell them apart.

Chronic anxiety sufferers who have experienced therapy are often aware of their triggers, they can identify when they are ruminating about something and implement techniques such as thought stopping to help control worrying, and with practice they can learn to let go of irrelevant things to focus on the important ones. They have learned to prioritize and with time lead a medication free life. However, things are not always this black and white.

Let’s look at Anna as an example. Anna became overwhelmed with family changes, added responsibilities, demands at work, and demands of life. She was adjusting to new additions to her home, suddenly responsible to care for a family while trying to manage increasing work demands. Social engagements were pressing in, adding time constraints to her already busy schedule. Although she was fully aware of their importance, maintaining relationships and self care became challenging because she was already overwhelmed.

Anna recognized her these symptoms, and quickly implemented the coping strategies that she has previously mastered. She started by focusing in on her worrying, she tackled these by prioritizing her responsibilities and making a To Do: list which freed up her mind from worry. She did relaxation breathing to calm panic and worry, and tried to reduce her feelings of being overwhelmed by delegating tasks, and systematically working to reduce her worry.

After a few weeks of this, things were getting worse. Anna could not understand why she was continuing to feel overwhelmed. In the past all these coping strategies had worked wonders for her, but now they didn’t seem to help. She didn’t have the worried thoughts in her head, she didn’t spend time ruminating about her problems, and yet she was experiencing an increasing amount of emotional and physical symptoms. She couldn’t sleep, she was emotionally fragile, easily pushed over the edge to tears and could be overwhelmed with the smallest problem, she was more irritable, and withdrawn.

After some exploration further, Anna realized that she was managing her anxiety but she had been overcome by the emotional symptoms of chronic stress. Emotional symptoms of chronic stress in women often include depressed mood, mood swings, and irritability. Behavioral symptoms of chronic stress include an increase in addictive behaviors such as nicotine, alcohol, and drug usage. They also include changes in sleep patterns, eating habits, poor concentration, increased forgetfulness and indecision when they are stressed. These symptoms of stress are comparable to symptoms of stress found in men.

With anxiety and stress being so similar in presentation and symptoms it can be hard to really understand how they differ. The difference between the two becomes very important when receiving treatment or when trying to manage symptoms. For example, an effective way to treat anxiety is to focus on calming the mind, through meditation, mindfulness or thought stopping techniques. Stress can be managed differently by focusing on giving the body a rest. A simple approach to managing stress is taking time to drink peppermint tea, schedule down time regularly, and always remember the soothing elements of a hot bath/shower. These changes are often very good at managing stress levels but will not address the cognitive aspects of anxiety.

Understanding the etiology of symptoms will ultimately help you understand the best way to conquer your own symptoms. Having knowledge as to whether you are experiencing either or both will affect the approach to treatment that you decide to take. If you are unsure about your symptoms or they are persistent, you should contact a mental health professional to help accurately diagnosis your symptoms.

Is It Anxiety or Stress?


Michele L. Brennan, Psy.D.

Dr. Brennan attended Rutgers University, and graduated with a Bachelor's of Arts in Psychology. She also completed a Master of Arts in Psychology at Pace University. Upon completion, she began a doctorate program at Argosy University completing a Master's of Arts and Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology. Currently, she is an adjunct instructor for a community college, co-founder of the non-profit organization Little Hands International, and developing her own psychology clinic. Trained in the Practitioner-Scholar model, Dr. Brennan works with clients using empirically supported techniques such as CBT, ACT, and BFST. She specializes in treating anxiety, depression, and adjustment disorders.


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APA Reference
Brennan, M. (2014). Is It Anxiety or Stress?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 26, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/balanced-life/2014/01/is-it-anxiety-or-stress/

 

Last updated: 25 Aug 2014
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