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Everyone experiences stress and anxiety at some point in their lives. Depending on the severity levels of stress and/or anxiety, it can present many challenges and significantly impact the quality of life. Many of us use the terms stress and anxiety interchangeably because they share many of the same physical symptoms. Physical symptoms may include headaches, tension, high blood pressure, loss of sleep, difficulty controlling worry, restlessness, and irritability. However, these symptoms may have different origins.

Being able to distinguish between stress and anxiety can help with increasing awareness of triggers, development of coping skills, and understanding of when to reach out for professional help. So, how do we recognize the difference between stress and anxiety?

Stress

Stress and anxiety often look similar and share the same arousal system. Arousal means being physically and mentally alert. When you experience stress, it’s your body’s reaction to a trigger and generally is a short-term experience. It is a response to an environmental factor. For example, you may have an argument with your friend or difficult time meeting a project deadline. These are external factors or triggers that can cause a stressful situation. Once you resolve the stressor the symptoms of stress disappear.

Stress can also serve as a motivation. For example, a person that experiences little to no stress may lack in motivation to keep up with their daily responsibilities. An individual that is experiencing moderate level of arousal from stress is likely to be motivated and concentrated to attend to their responsibilities. So experiencing some stress because you have a deadline may motivate you and energize you to work on meeting your deadline.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a person’s internal reaction that can be triggered by chronic stressful events, a major stressful event, or it can occur without an identifiable stressor. Unlike stress, anxiety doesn’t fade away once stressful situations has been resolved. It sticks around for a long time and it can cause significant distress and interfere with your daily life.

Anxiety activates your arousal system and leads to intense feelings of worry, restlessness, irritability, etc. These intense feelings may lead you to avoid social situations, withdraw from activities, and experience irritability for no reason. Anxiety activates our nervous system and causes the fight, flight, or freeze response.

Fight, Flight, Freeze Response

You may have heard of the fight, flight, or freeze response. It is an important part of our brain that has an evolutionary basis in protecting us from danger. Although it’s commonly known, let’s take a closer look.

Our Brain

Our amygdala is our body’s alarm system. As early humans living in a wilderness needed protection from danger such as animals or predators, the amygdala would become activated to help us either fight the predator, flee from the situation, or freeze and hope that the stressor will leave. When we experience stressful situations our body reacts as if our life is in danger. The fight, flight, or freeze response get triggered. Essentially, our body alarm is consistently going off. It gets stuck in the “on” mode so we run away from or fight danger all day long until we become exhausted!

How It Shows Up

Some of the symptoms of the fight response include crying, clenching fists, grinding teeth, feelings of anger or rage, and feeling nauseous.

Symptoms of the freeze response may be feeling cold or numb, a sense of heaviness, holding your breath, decreased heart rate, and a sense of dread.

Flight response symptoms may include restless legs, shallow breathing, feelings of restlessness or fidgety, and excessive exercise.

How Do We Cope?

The important part is to recognize what helps when you are feeling distressed. How do you soothe yourself and what is helpful in managing overwhelming emotions? It’s important to recognize that the goal is not to avoid our feelings but rather to acknowledge and honor them.

Our feelings communicate important messages to us. When we are happy, the emotion may communicate that something that you’ve been looking forward to is taking place. When you’re feeling distressed, the emotion may communicate that something is out of balance.

It’s important to recognize and acknowledge our feelings. However, when we are in distress simply acknowledging our feelings is not enough. So how do we comfort ourselves? What practices do you engage in to help you calm yourself? Do you find walking, journaling, deep breathing, stretching, talking, listening to music, and/or drawing helpful? Learning grounding techniques to soothe your body is helpful to regulate our emotions.

Everyone experiences periods of increased stress and sometimes it can be overwhelming. It can be hard to know when it’s time to reach out for help. If you find yourself overwhelmed and notice symptoms of stress are no longer manageable and symptoms of anxiety interfere with everyday life, it may be time to reach out for support. I’d be glad to support you and help you identify triggers and develop coping strategies to manage symptoms of anxiety. Give me a call and let’s work through your anxiety together.

Written by therapist Viktor Terpay

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