How many times have you found yourself saying "I'm stressed" when what you truly meant was "I'm anxious"? It's a common mix-up in casual conversations, but mental health experts stress the importance of understanding the distinction between stress and anxiety.
While these terms are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings and implications.
What is Stress: Stress, as described by Dr. Sandra Pisano, a clinical psychologist and director of behavioral health at AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles, California, is a state of worry or mental confusion triggered by challenging situations known as stressors.
These stressors can be diverse, ranging from work-related problems and financial turmoil to conflicts in relationships.
Cortisol, The Stress Harmone: When faced with stressors, our bodies respond by releasing cortisol, commonly referred to as the stress hormone. This hormone serves various purposes, including aiding in metabolism control, regulating blood pressure, and reducing inflammation.
In terms of stress response, cortisol boosts our energy and enhances our ability to stay alert, often pushing us into a "fight or flight" mode.
Stress Symptoms: Stress can manifest in a range of physical and emotional symptoms. Physically, stress can weaken our immune system, making us more susceptible to fatigue and illnesses, while also increasing the risk of conditions such as heart attacks or strokes.
It can cause upset stomachs, nausea, dysregulation of the reproductive system, trouble sleeping, muscle tension, and more. Emotionally, stress can lead to feelings of irritability, anger, being overwhelmed, or an inability to relax.
Racing thoughts, sadness, and a decreased sense of humor are also common emotional symptoms of stress.
It's important to note that each person may experience stress differently, and not everyone can easily identify their stressors, but most individuals can recognize at least some of the symptoms associated with stress.
What is Anxiety: Anxiety, on the other hand, goes beyond the presence of stressors. It is characterized by stress symptoms persisting even in the absence of a stressor.
Dr. David Merrill, an adult and geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute's Pacific Brain Health Center, explains that anxiety is a behavioral health diagnosis that can be treated.
While stressors can act as triggers for anxiety, individuals can also experience anxiety without any identifiable stressors.
Anxiety Symptoms: Similar to stress, anxiety can lead to both physical and emotional symptoms. Physically, anxiety can manifest as shaking, sweating, trembling, feeling flushed or experiencing cold sweats, rapid heart rate, muscle tension, nausea or vomiting, rapid or shallow breathing, difficulty breathing, vision changes, and muscle twitches.
Emotionally, anxiety may cause feelings of irritability, anger, being overwhelmed, an inability to relax, rumination, racing thoughts, sadness, and a decreased sense of humor.
Anxiety Disorder: It's important to note that not everyone who experiences anxiety is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders involve frequent and intense episodes of anxiety that may occur "out of the blue" and without clear triggers.
When anxiety begins to significantly impact daily functioning, seeking professional help becomes essential. Therapy, medication, or a combination of both may be recommended to manage anxiety disorders effectively.
Language Matters: Understanding the distinction between stress and anxiety is crucial for effective communication and support. Misusing these terms can unintentionally stigmatize or pathologize individuals who are dealing with these challenges.
By educating ourselves and using these terms accurately and respectfully, we create a more supportive and inclusive environment for everyone.
It is also important to invest in mental health education, create safe spaces for individuals struggling with stress and anxiety, and ensure access to affordable mental health programs for all.
Let's strive for a society that recognizes the difference between stress and anxiety, and supports one another on the path to mental well-being.