There’s a fine line between stress and anxiety.
Stress is a feeling of emotional strain and pressure. Generally, stress is a response to an external cause, such as a deadline for a work project or conflict with a partner. This type of stress goes away once the situation is resolved.
If the external cause doesn’t go away, neither will the stress and it becomes chronic. This is the most unhealthy situation.
Anxiety is based on the uncertainty of a future event. Generally, anxiety is internal, meaning it’s your reaction to stress. It usually involves a persistent feeling of worry or dread that doesn’t go away. It’s constant, even if there is no immediate or specific cause.
Now there is some overlap between the two. Both stress and anxiety can result in:
- Excessive worry
- Headaches or body pain
- High blood pressure
- Loss of sleep
The most important thing to know about stress is how it affects your body. This is something we normally don’t realize fully. Chronic stress can be very damaging to your body.
What happens to the body during stress?
The body’s autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate, breathing, vision changes, and more. Its built-in stress response helps the body face stressful situations.
When a person has long-term (chronic) stress, continued activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body. Physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms develop.
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Aches and pains
- Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping.
- Headaches and dizziness
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Stomach or digestive problems
- Trouble having sex
- Weak immune system
Stress is not always easy to recognize, but there are some ways to identify some signs that you might be experiencing too much pressure. Sometimes stress can come from an obvious source, but sometimes even small daily stresses from work, school, family, and friends can take a toll on your mind and body.
A helpful way to think about chronic stress is that it increases the wear and tear on your body and mind.
If you think stress might be affecting you, there are a few things you can watch for:
- Psychological signs such as difficulty concentrating, worrying, anxiety, and trouble remembering
- Emotional signs such as being angry, irritated, moody, or frustrated
- Physical signs such as high blood pressure, changes in weight, frequent colds or infections, changes in the menstrual cycle, and loss of sexual desire
- Behavioral signs such as poor self-care, not having time for the things you enjoy, or relying on drugs and alcohol to cope
What can you do to combat stress?
Get active. Exercise builds resilience. Exercise is key to maintaining physical and emotional well-being and has been shown to moderate the body’s response to stress. Engaging in regular exercise leads to a reduced stress response.
Stay connected. Stress and anxiety will make you want to isolate, which will make it worse. Call or visit one person and just be yourself.
Get good sleep. Disturbed sleep makes everything more difficult. Start with practicing good sleep hygiene: get off all screens at least an hour before lights out, use your bed only for sleep and sex, keep your bedroom cool and dark and get up at the same time every morning.
Ask yourself, “What are my stressors right now?” That way you can try to separate the external pressures from the way they make you feel. That can help you work on dealing with the stressor.