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Doctor Julie Smith breaks it down for you.
In a world where locking yourself away from other humans for ten days (thanks, isolation), regularly having to test, and trying to avoid a virus that has the potential to kill you is the reality of our day-to-day, it’s no surprise that there’s been a spike in search around “stress vs anxiety”.
The nation’s mental health is suffering big time as the coronavirus pandemic drags on and more lives are lost. Sometimes it feels like there is no end in sight, a concept alone that can weigh pretty heavily on anyone’s mental health.
If you’ve had a mental health condition before, you’ll know that stress and anxiety are both common – but do you know how to tell the difference between regular day-to-day stress and anxiety (everyone experiences it from time to time, and it’s to be expected during a global pandemic) and chronic stress or clinical anxiety that may need medical treatment?
If you answered no to the above then you’re in the right place. Today, psychologist Doctor Julie Smith launches her first book, Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before?. To mark the occasion, we spoke to the expert to get her take on differentiating stress vs anxiety in yourself.
Stress vs anxiety: how to distinguish the difference
Stress vs anxiety: a definition
First things first, it’s helpful to identify what both stress – and anxiety – are.
According to Smith, there’s one simple way. “The most helpful way to understand stress is by looking at it this way: your brain is constantly receiving information from your body about the demands of the world around you and working out the effort needed to meet those demands.”
“Your body will try release as much energy internally as is being fed in from outside so that nothing is wasted, but in periods of high demand, will generally lead to high stress as your body can’t handle so much” she shares.
If your internal state is well matched to those demands, you can experience the energy matching as positive. Good examples include feeling pumped before a sports competition or excited prior to hosting a big event. “But when your internal state is not matched to the demands, you tend to perceive that as negative stress, like when you have too many deadlines and you start to think that you can’t manage all the work,” she explains.
The symptoms of stress show up in your body, your mind, and in your behaviour. Symptoms of stress include:
- Headaches or dizziness
- Muscle tension or pain
- Stomach problems
- Chest pain or a faster heartbeat
- Sexual problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Struggling to make decisions
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Being forgetful
- Being irritable and snappy
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Eating too much or too little
- Avoiding certain places or people
- Drinking or smoking more.
Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? by Dr Julie Smith
Anxiety is similarly part of the stress response and, although it involves a similar state of alertness, is a separate mental health condition. “We tend to use the term nowadays to refer to strong feelings of fear or worrying thoughts,” she shares.
Anxiety symptoms will generally make you feel like you want to escape or avoid a situation for fear of something happening and include the following:
- A pounding heart
- Muscle aches and tension
- Trembling or shaking
- Dry mouth
- Excessive sweating
- Shortness of breath
- Stomach ache
- Feeling sick
- A sense of dread
- Feeling constantly “on edge”
- Difficulty concentrating
- Excessive worrying
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Avoidance of the situations that trigger feelings of anxiety
- Withdrawal from friends and family.
Why are stress and anxiety often confused?
Good question, and one that, as a qualified psychologist who breaks down common and confusing mental health myths for a living, that Smith is perfectly placed to answer. “Stress and anxiety are both terms that have become widely used as umbrella terms for a diverse set of experiences, and most people use the terms interchangeably” she shares.
Biologically, she shares that the experience of what we call stress is constructed through the same mechanisms in the brain as emotions are. “But the label and the meaning we give to feelings is all in the context. For example, let’s say you’re waiting in a long queue at the post office. If you feel stressed, it may be because you have lots to do and the increase in your alertness is helping you make the decision about whether to re-prioritise so that you can meet the demands on you,” she explains.
On the other hand, anxiety would likely step from something like being in a crowded place and that being a potential danger to health as a result of the pandemic.
Which is more serious – stress vs anxiety – and for which should you seek medical help?
Know this: Smith reassures that both anxiety and stress are a normal part of being human.
“That being said, they are meant to be short-term responses to help us through short-term problems,” she emphasises. “When stress or anxiety persist over longer periods of time and start to impact on our daily life, then seeking help is a good idea. Chronic stress can cause huge problems with both physical and mental health so we have to start taking it seriously,” she explains.
Similarly, there is no set of criteria you have to meet before your suffering becomes valid enough to seek support. “You are the expert on your own experience – if you are struggling and may benefit from some support, then reach out.”
You don’t have to be clear on what is wrong before you see a professional – it’s their job to help you work things out, shares the psychologist.
5 tips for overcoming day-to-day stress or anxiety
1. Work out what’s causing your worry
This one’s key, shares Smith. “Take time to sit and map out what is going on in your life to cause such stress or anxiety,” she advises. Why? Because sometimes simply sitting down with pen and paper and giving ourselves a chance to think can help to make the problem understandable.
Do note, though: she warns that sometimes, it’s much more complex and layered and could benefit from the help of a friend or a therapist. “Either way, you can’t solve a problem we don’t understand,” she shares.
2. Make sure to rest
Top tip: when you are stressed or anxious your body is working extremely hard, so respond to your tiredness by making time for rest.
3. Guide yourself into relaxation
Find it difficult to relax? Why not try listening to guided relaxation tracks online to help keep you focused on the task of helping return your body and mind to calm?
4. Lean on the tools that work for you
“You can’t just eliminate stress so you need to make sure you use the relevant tools to help you recover from it,” she shares.
Exercise has wonderful benefits for those coping with stress and anxiety, but do whatever works best for you.
5. Get talking
Did you know? Social support is our inbuilt mechanism for stress resilience.
“When you talk to others and get good quality support, it changes the way you recover from stress – so get talking,” she advises.
6. Regularly check in with yourself
Sometimes life can pull you away from what matters most. “I like to do what I call a regular values check-in,” shares Smith. “This is when I work out what is most important to me in the different areas of my life and the kind of person I want to be. Then I look at how closely I am living in line with that and how I can redirect to head in the direction of my values.”
Give it a go and let us know how you get on.