Stress Solutions

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by Susan Andrews, PhD

Stress vs Anxiety: Can You Tell the Difference

Is there any difference between stress and anxiety? Of course, there is, but there are probably more similarities than differences. Some of the common symptoms between stress and anxiety include: sleepless nights and subsequent exhaustion, excessive worry, difficulty with focus, irritability, muscle tension, rapid heart rate, and headaches.

The differences between anxiety and stress are important. Stress is your body’s immediate reaction to a problem or coming event, or some sort of trigger. The trigger can be positive or negative. And, the stress reaction is normally short-term. Stress is normal for everyone. No one can live a completely stress-free life. But, usually when something triggers the stress
reaction, our body automatically reverses the physical reactions once the trigger is gone. For instance, when you have a deadline to complete an activity or a job, stress kicks in and actually can help you meet your deadline. That’s a good thing.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is not usually “short-term.” That is, when anxiety becomes a sustained problem, it then becomes a mental health problem. An alarming fact is that Anxiety Disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting 40 million adults and uncounted numbers of our children. This is at least 18 to 20% of the population.

The odd interaction or blending of the boundaries of these two similar mechanisms we use to deal with life is that stress can cause anxiety and anxiety definitely triggers stress. Anxiety causes stress because the excessive worry and constant thinking automatically triggers Cortisol, among other bodily stress reactions. That leads to being unable to rest or sleep, problems with focus and so on. In other words, stress and anxiety often go hand-n-hand.

In dealing with either or both, however, it all comes down to Thinking. What we think. How much we think. Whether or not we can let go of a negative thought or worry. Whether or not we can clear our mind of thoughts, positive or negative, to fall asleep or to rest for a few minutes. When we become unable to control our minds and what and how long we think, the inevitable result is a high degree of stress and anxiety that can cause all the negative consequences one can read about.

So, learning how to stop thinking, clear your mind, change the inner dialogue topic are the primary keys. How do we do that? Most people can recite a list now. However, reciting a list and actually doing some of the things on the list are two different things. The list includes: Breathing and relaxation techniques, Mindfulness, Meditation, Exercise, Changing what you are doing – like, taking a break in the activity that might be producing the stress and doing something else, and Music – either listening or if you are one of the lucky ones who learned how to play an instrument – playing music has amazing benefits for mental and physical health. As a group of mental health practitioners, we need to teach children how to control their thinking and how to clear their mind and relax. Children who grow up with those abilities will live longer, be more productive and live life with more joy. It’s never too late.

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