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Stress or Anxiety? How to Spot the Differences.

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stress or anxiety

For many, the words “stress” and “anxiety” are interchangeable. And while it’s true that they share similarities, they are two very different problems. According to the ADAA, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, but only 36.9% of the people suffering from a disorder seek treatment for it. This is most likely because a lot of people don’t understand that the symptoms they are experiencing are part of a bigger problem, and they believe that they are just stressed. Anyone who leads a busy life can relate to the never ending, unpleasant surprises that can be thrown at us. But how do you know when you’re just stressed or when you’re facing a heavier burden?  

Stress has a clear source. You might be feeling the pressure of a deadline looming at work, or maybe your children have been misbehaving more than usual lately. It’s normal to feel a certain level of apprehension about these things. But even though the stress might be making you uncomfortable there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The big thing at work will eventually come to pass, your kids will behave better and your stress levels will recede. 

Anxiety, on the other hand, is obsessing over something to the point where you can’t stop thinking about it. While someone who is stressed might be generally worried about work performance, someone with anxiety will focus on this relentlessly. Anxiety exaggerates the truth, so these people might focus on the idea that they’re going to fail even if they are ahead of schedule and doing good work.

It can be hard to discern between the two, especially since someone might look at the differences mentioned above and think that both can describe them depending on the situation. However, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to delve deeper into the issue and find the answers you need. 

How often are you thinking about it? 

People who are experiencing periods of stress can generally step away from a problem to clear their heads or relax a little. They are able to switch over to something lighter to give themselves a break before diving back into the stressful work. People who are experiencing anxiety cannot bring themselves to do this. They are constantly stuck in the problem they are focused on, and it’s very hard for them to step away and think about something else. For them, thoughts are intrusive and almost impossible to tune out. 

Does how you feel hinder your ability to function?  

Think about how you feel when you’re apprehensive about something. Does the fear paralyze you, or can you move through it to complete the task? If you’re worried about a presentation at work, can you move through the material once you get going? If you’re nervous about making a phone call, do you take a deep breath and do it, or do you constantly put it off? If you become so worried that you have a hard time going through with the task at hand, it’s probably anxiety. Stress might complicate your life sometimes, but if the constant stress that you’re feeling is affecting your ability to perform and succeed, it might be time to consider that there’s a deeper issue at play. 


Is it affecting your relationships with others? 

Someone who has been facing a lot of stress might feel the need to stay in and recharge every once in a while. For someone with anxiety, they might be canceling plans because they can’t stop thinking about something and can’t handle anything else at the moment. With anxiety, this will be a common occurrence. Think about if your loved ones have been expressing concern for you. You might not realize how withdrawn you’ve become, or how often you’ve been canceling plans, but they will. When the people in your life start to worry about you, it’s time to consider if you’re withdrawing because you’re stressed, or if you are avoiding certain situations because you are afraid of how they will make you feel.

What is your body telling you?

In movies and on TV, one of the most common portrayals of extreme anxiety and panic attacks is someone hyperventilating into a paper bag. What many don’t realize is that everyone experiences anxiety differently. There is no correct way to experience anxiety. Some of the most common symptoms are being so anxious that you throw up, stress eating, or being so anxious that you can’t eat at all. Another sign is trouble sleeping, but some people also sleep too much because it might be the only relief they get. Anxiety can also manifest as physical pain such as back pain or headaches. It’s easy to brush these symptoms off, but if you are experiencing them frequently, they might have a deeper meaning. 

As you can see, anxiety isn’t something that’s easy to see in ourselves, as there are a myriad of causes and symptoms that vary from person to person. It can be hard to decide to seek treatment for anxiety. For many, this is how they’ve felt their entire lives and it feels normal to them. Self-care tips for destressing can be helpful, but if you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder, it can be hard to manage it alone. A good way to decide if seeking help is the right course of action is to write down the ways in which these feelings are affecting your life. Be as honest as possible with yourself and you might have some surprising realizations. 

If you need help deciding whether or not you’re suffering from anxiety, or a helping hand with managing your symptoms, do not hesitate to contact us. We’re always here to walk with you on your healing path.  

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