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The difference Between Stress and Anxiety (and how to manage them)

Are you lying in bed thinking about work tomorrow and feeling annoyed that you can’t sleep?

Insomnia is one of the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety. It’s particularly debilitating because it doesn’t only reduce your ability to function optimally during the day, it also sets up a pattern that is difficult to break.

Is it stress or anxiety that you’re feeling and how can you manage it so that you catch some z’s again preferably soon?

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s reaction to a perceived threat. Here I want to emphasize the word “perceived,” meaning it doesn’t have to be an actual threat for you to feel threatened, but we’ll return to this point later.

It all starts with the amygdala – a region of your brain whose primary role is to process emotions and memories associated with fear.

You’re walking home in a dark, deserted alley and you hear something suspicious. Your amygdala responds to the stimulus by sending a distress signal, then another region of your brain called hypothalamus activates your sympathetic nervous system.

A cascade of hormones floods your bloodstream and before you know it, you’re ready to either fight the danger or run away fast.

This is an adaptive response to threat. Your survival can depend on it. You’ve heard something in the dark alley and without any hesitation you run towards the light. Having made it out of the alley, you’re in a brightly lit square surrounded by plenty of people. You’re safe again.

Catching your breath, you congratulate yourself for reacting this fast. Who knew you could run like an athlete? You take a few moments to recover after this unwelcome evening excitement and continue your journey with your head held high.

Stress can have maladaptive responses as well. Let’s say you’re in the alley and you feel already under a lot of stress about work, your relationship, and your kids. You’re dragging your body along with a sense of dread as you’re ruminating over conversations and tasks. You hear a noise and stat running. You make it out to the square but instead of the exhilaration of having survived a potentially dangerous situation unscathed you remind yourself that the world is a threatening and sinister place there to destroy you personally.

In this second case, your base line is chronic stress, you’re already feeling threatened and vigilant. Even when you’re out of immediate danger, you’re still feeling stressed. You cannot calm yourself down, and as you look around, people seem a little bit more dangerous than before. You hunch your back and head for home feeling even worse. Next day as you pass the alley you get your first panic attack.

Stress is physical – it drives the blood away from your stomach and other parts of your body to the muscles in your limbs so that you have the strength to fight or run. Every organism’s main objective is to survive. Stress enables the organism to optimise its energy use in such a way that it ensures the organism’s survival.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is mental.

You will experience the same or similar physical symptoms under anxiety as you do when stressed because it’s the same mechanism: a reaction to threat. Except that the threat here is often initiated and kept alive by your very thoughts rather than a stimulus coming from your environment.

You don’t need to be in a dark alley and hear a potentially threatening noise to feel that your life is in danger. You can just think about being there and your brain and body will create the experience for you, thus “perceived” threat leads to a stress reaction.

You go into the dark alley ruminating about the past and thinking that the future only holds negative things. These thoughts are threatening your well-being, initiating a stress reaction, and fuelling the stress with more of the same thoughts.

You have just made it out unscathed, so you could be exhilarated and proud, yet another success for you. Instead, you interpret the situation as a sign that you’re in danger and you will always be in danger. There’s no way out.

The world feels slightly more dangerous, your heartbeat stays elevated, and you start scanning your environment frantically. You feel exhausted, lonely, and overwhelmed. Your mind is racing with thoughts that pull you deeper into anxiety rather than relieving it.

You arrive home and find the rest of the family chilling and laughing together. You feel that they don’t understand you or care about you; if they did, they would see how you’re feeling. You rush to the bathroom and lock yourself in, waiting for the day to end.

How to manage stress and overcome anxiety?

You’re still reading and thinking that work will be even more difficult tomorrow if you don’t get some sleep. It’s interesting to read about these hypothetical cases of people walking down a dark alley, but what about you lying in a cosy bed in the safety of your home?

If there’s an important deadline or presentation ahead of you, you’re probably stressed and once that is out of the way, you’ll go back to your baseline. However, if a persistent worry has been weighing down on your mind ever since you can remember we could be talking about low levels of anxiety, bearing in mind that no article or informal chat is ever a diagnosis – for that you’ll need to talk to your doctor or mental health professional.

Managing stress is a skill that we can perfect with practice. When you feel the stress reaction in your body and there’s no immediate danger in your environment that you need to escape, you can do things to calm yourself down.

Focus on your breathing, making the outbreath slightly longer. By focussing on the sensations, you’re communicating to your brain that it’s okay, there’s no danger, you can relax. Once you feel calmer, continue by focussing on the part of the body (often the stomach, chest, or throat) that feels tighter and just feel the way it relaxes without you doing anything.

If in the meantime thoughts come up, you have a choice: let them go and guide your attention back to the breathing/body part, or question that though briefly: “Is it true?” “How can I be certain that it’s true?”

Then go back to the body, allowing it to relax, slowly drifting into sleep.