Stress and anxiety actually do have their functions if they’re not experienced in excess. They push us to make necessary changes in our lives. They signal when we may be in danger, and inspire us to take action to get ourselves out of danger. (This danger can be any type of threat to our physical or emotional well-being, from not doing well on a test to losing a job to losing a friend.) In this way, feelings of stress and anxiety are healthy and necessary; without them, we may not act in our own best interest.
The point at which worry and anxiety become unhealthy is when they immobilize us rather than inspire us to act.Everyone experiences stress and anxiety at one time or another. From the outside looking in, it can be difficult to spot the differences between stress and anxiety. Depending on the level of severity, they can detrimentally impact one’s quality of life. Although stress and anxiety share many of the same emotional and physical symptoms
– uneasiness, tension, headaches, high blood pressure and loss of sleep – they have very different origins.
Stress is typically caused by an external trigger; it focuses on mainly external pressures on us that we’re finding hard to cope with. When we are stressed, we usually know what we’re stressed about, and the symptoms of stress typically disappear after the stressful situation is over. The trigger can be short-term, such as a work deadline or a fight with a loved one or long-term, such as being unable to work, discrimination, or chronic illness. People under stress experience mental and physical symptoms, such as irritability, anger, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive troubles, and difficulty sleeping.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. Anxiety leads to a nearly identical set of symptoms as stress: insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability. It focuses on worries or fears about things that could threaten us, as well as anxiety about the anxiety itself.
It’s important to know how to identify and differentiate signs of stress and anxiety. Stress is a common trigger for anxiety and it’s important to catch anxiety symptoms early to prevent development of an anxiety disorder.
Coping with Stress
While it may seem like there’s nothing you can do about stress at work and home, there are steps you can take to relieve the pressure and regain control. Learning to cope with stress can require some trial and error. Effective stress management helps you break the hold stress has on your life, so you can be happier, healthier, and more productive. The ultimate goal is a balanced life, with time for work, relationships, relaxation, and fun—and the resilience to hold up under pressure and meet challenges head on. But stress management is not one-size-fits-all. That’s why it’s important to experiment and find out what works best for you.
- Identify the sources of stress in your life: This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. While it’s easy to identify major stressors such as changing jobs, moving, or going through a divorce, pinpointing the sources of chronic stress can be more complicated. It’s all too easy to overlook how your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contribute to your everyday stress levels. To identify your true sources of stress, look closely at your habits, attitude, and excuses. Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will remain outside your control.
- Relaxation breathing: The single best thing you can do when under stress is to engage in deep breathing. Practice this strategy when you’re calm so that you know how to use it when you’re under pressure. Inhale for a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for four. And repeat.
- Practice mindfulness: Sure, there’s an app for that, but the best way to practice mindfulness is to disconnect from your digital world and reconnect with your natural world for a specific period of time each day. Take a walk outside and use the opportunity to notice your surroundings using all of your senses.
- Get moving: When you’re stressed, the last thing you probably feel like doing is getting up and exercising. But physical activity is a huge stress reliever. Exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good, and it can also serve as a valuable distraction from your daily worries. Making exercise a daily habit can buffer you from negative reactions to stressful events. The first step is to get yourself up and moving.
In addition to regular exercise, there are other healthy lifestyle choices that can increase your resistance to stress.
- Keep a journal: A stress journal can help you identify the regular stressors in your life and the way you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, keep track of it in your journal or use a stress tracker on your phone. Keeping a daily log will enable you to see patterns and common themes. Writing down your best and worst of the day helps you sort through the obstacles and focus on what went right. It’s normal to experience ups and downs on any given day.
- Get creative: There’s a reason adult coloring books are so popular – they work. Whether you’re drawing, painting, writing poetry, or throwing paint on a wall, engaging in a creative hobby gives your mind a chance to relax.
- Connect to others: There is nothing more calming than spending quality time with another human being who makes you feel safe and understood. In fact, face-to-face interaction triggers a cascade of hormones that counteracts the body’s defensive “fight-or-flight” response. It’s nature’s natural stress reliever. Keep in mind that the people you talk to don’t have to be able to fix your stress. They simply need to be good listeners. And try not to let worries about looking weak or being a burden keep you from opening up. The people who care about you will be flattered by your trust. It will only strengthen your bond. By building and maintaining a network of close friends and family you can improve your resiliency to life’s stressors.
Identifying your triggers can take some time and self-reflection. Anxiety is typically experienced on cognitive, emotional, and physical levels. For instance, when feeling anxious a person may have negative or disturbing thoughts. On an emotional level, one may feel scared or out-of-control. It is also common to experience severe anxiety through somatic sensations, such as sweating, trembling, or shortness of breath. People with panic disorder are typically familiar with the struggle of managing feelings of anxiety. It can feel as if the anxiety is taking over or completely out of one’s control. Some ways you can cope with anxiety are:
- Stop and Breath: When anxiety flares, take a time out and think about what it is that is making you so nervous. Anxiety is typically experienced as worrying about a future or past event. The next time your anxiety starts to take you out of the present, regain control by sitting down and taking a few deep breaths. Simply stopping and breathing can help restore a sense of personal balance and bring you back to the present moment.
- Figure out what’s bothering you: The physical symptoms of panic and anxiety, such as trembling, chest pain, and rapid heartbeat, are usually more apparent than understanding just what is making you anxious. However, in order to get to the root of your anxiety, you need to figure out what’s bothering you. To get to the bottom of your anxiety, put some time aside to exploring your thoughts and feelings. Make it a habit to regularly uncover and express your feelings of anxiety.
- Focus on What You Can Change: Many times anxiety stems from fearing things that haven’t even happened and may never occur. Life can be unpredictable and no matter how hard you try, you can’t always control what happens. However, you can decide how you are going to deal with the unknown. You can turn your anxiety into a source of strength by letting go of fear. Replace your fears by changing your attitude about them.
- Lifestyle changes: There are several changes you can make at home. Daily exercise, good sleep hygiene, healthy eating, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol are all home remedies that can decrease symptoms of anxiety.
Everyone experiences periods of increased stress, and sometimes stress can feel overwhelming. It is important to learn how to manage your stress and when to seek help. When stress no longer feels manageable and symptoms of anxiety interfere with your daily living, it’s time to seek help. Although stress and anxiety may arise in your workplace and personal life, there are many simple ways to reduce the pressure you feel. Exercise, mindfulness, music and creativity can all work to relieve anxiety and they will improve your overall work-life balance as well.
And remember, there’s always a light at the end of any tunnel…