Is It Stress or Anxiety? A Psychologist Reveals How to Tell the Difference

The global pandemic has undoubtedly affected all of us, especially when it comes to our mental health. If you’ve been feeling a little out of sorts lately or perhaps even concerned about your wellbeing, you’re not alone. More people are experiencing ‘lockdown fatigue’ and ‘pandemic brain’, burnout has become a norm, and Google searches for terms such as ‘panic attack’ and ‘anxiety attack’ have hit an all-time high. This all signals that managing and improving mental health and psychological wellbeing needs to be a priority.

This surge has also prompted many people to use the words ‘stressed’ and ‘anxious’ interchangeably, but those terms actually mean different things. Understanding the differences between stress and anxiety can be difficult because both conditions can have similar feelings and symptoms. Here, Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno explains the difference between the two - and ways to ease the symptoms of each.

What is stress?

Sokarno explains it in scientific terms: “Stress releases cortisol, a steroid hormone that when under control is an essential hormone to human functioning but when in excess, it can take a toll on your brain (not to mention the other psychical health problems such as weight gain, digestive problems and heart disease). Cortisol creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which creates free radicals that actually attack and break down cells, much like water on metal can make it rust over time.

“Under chronic stress, stem cells in the brain become oligodendrocytes, which coat neurons in a material called myelin. The excess of myelin affects the balance of communication and timing within the brain, which then alters how neurons connect with each other.”

What are the symptoms of stress?

When your cognitive function is affected, you’ll most likely experience symptoms including “memory loss, forgetfulness, confusion and concentration problems.”

These common signs of stress are silent, however, there are also physical signs of stress that are often overlooked by many.

“The physical signs of stress can range from sweating, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, headaches, stomach aches and dizziness,” Sokarno explains.

“Having these physical reactions can certainly take a toll on someone’s health, and long-term effects can include things like insomnia, heart problems, high blood pressure and adrenal fatigue.”

Moreover, stress can most definitely lead to other issues such as anxiety disorder and depression.

“We know that stress is inherently a part of life and that people’s experience of stress is different but what matters most is how you handle it.”

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is our body’s “natural response to stress or a perceived threat”, and the at of preparing for this fight or flight response looks different for everyone.

“Some people might cry others might feel physically ill or others might get a headache,” Sokarno says. “The most important thing is to know your own warning signs and respond to them when you notice them coming on."

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

There are some universal warning signs that indicate someone is feeling anxious. These include: intrusive worrying thoughts, pounding heart and quickness/shortness of breath, feeling nauseous in the stomach, becoming dizzy or getting headaches, or sweating in the absence of physical exertion.

“Anxiety symptoms can vary in intensity, ranging from mild to severe, with symptoms often becoming gradually more intense over time.

When it comes to anxiety attacks, these instances are correlated to stressors and more proportionate in nature.

“When someone is suffering from an anxiety attack, they may feel a sense of heightened arousal, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing/shortness of breath. Fear is often induced in these situations by direct stressors, such as being followed while walking home at night, someone breaking into your home or being chased by a dog.”

What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

There are three main ways to tell the difference between stress and anxiety: “ the intensity of the symptoms, the length of time that they occur and how regularly it happens.”

“For example, if you experience symptoms that seem to be happening as expected, for example before a job interview or first date and then they subside, that might be everyday stress. However, if you’re feeling symptoms constantly and often with no direct event or scenario of the cause, it could be anxiety.”

It’s important to seek help if these symptoms are common or lasting longer.

How do you manage stress?

Some ways to manage stress include:

  • Breathing techniques that focus on slow and deep breathing
  • Exercises that centre breath and focus
  • Mindfulness techniques
  • Exercise can help to manage stress levels and release tension
  • Eating regular meals can help to stabilise blood sugar levels
  • Avoiding caffeine and alcohol as these substances have been known to make stress feel worse
  • Support groups
  • Sessions with a psychologist who can provide coping techniques and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to identify and change negative thought patterns

How do you manage anxiety?

Some ways to manage anxiety disorders include:

  • Mindfulness techniques such as journaling
  • Self-care activities such as taking a bath
  • Relaxation techniques such techniques meditation and yoga
  • Correct breathing techniques
  • Dietary adjustments
  • Exercise in any form, from walking through more intense forms
  • Building self-esteem through self-love exercises
  • Sessions with a psychologist who can provide coping techniques and CBT

When not treated, stress and anxiety can become harmful. “Our thoughts shift from motivating to damaging and we produce too much cortisol, which has a raft of negative physical implications.”

What to consider about stress and anxiety

From a psychologist's point of view, Sokarno recommends monitoring how much stress or anxiety is affecting your day-to-day life and evaluate from there. There are a few key questions you can ask yourself to determine the extremity of your mental health issue. 

1. Are your feelings and thoughts persistent and consistent, and make it impossible to think about other things?

2. Instead of motivating you to work harder at something, are your feelings and thoughts crippling your ability to cope and causing you to break down?

3. Are your feelings and thoughts damaging other areas of your daily life like romantic or social relationships, work or study, sleeping, eating or financially?

4. Are your symptoms lasting longer than they should be or normally would?

If you’re able to resonate with any of the above, it’s important to look further and seek professional help.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, call 000. If you are concerned about your health, wellbeing or sleep, you can also speak to your GP, who will advise a correct treatment plan.

Nancy Sokarno is a psychologist at Lysn. Follow her on Instagram @psychwithsokz.

Now you know what stress and anxiety is, here are the signs and symptoms of 'languishing' to look out for.

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