Most people will be familiar with the symptoms of stress and anxiety. Whether its from cramming for exams, the first few days in a new job, or prepping yourself for a first date, needing to perform can bring on some uncomfortable feelings. Here’s how to distinguish between a normal response to a situation and an unhealthy one.
What is stress?
Stress is usually seen as a response to a threat in a particular situation. In the past, the stress response helped to protect us from dangerous situations. In extreme situations that were a matter of life and death, we would have an even more extreme reaction: the fight or flight response.
When we perceive a danger via one of our senses, usually our eyes and ears, it sets off a cascade of hormonal and physiological changes in our body that are largely out of our control. It starts at the amygdala, an area of our brain that is responsible for the processing of emotions. A signal is sent to other areas of the brain and the body that there is danger and to get prepared. This leads to adrenaline being pumped into our bloodstream which may cause us to start breathing faster, our heart rate to go up, and our blood pressure to rise. We may also notice that our sight and hearing become sharper, and we become more focussed.
Stress is a normal response to a situation, and will usually start to subside once the perceived danger has passed. The threat that has caused this response doesn’t need to be life threatening either – it can be anything that you perceive as a risk to you, whether it is the risk of embarrassment when giving a speech, the risk of losing a race, or not being able to pay a bill on time. This sort of stress is not always a bad thing. Manageable amounts of stress can actually improve performance. But letting stress go on for too long, or to become unmanageable, can lead to health problems including digestive issues, weight gain, sleep disorders, heart disease, memory and concentration impairment, and of course, anxiety and depression.
What is anxiety?
When stress becomes prolonged or at too high a level, it does become a problem. Anxiety is a reaction to long term or increased stress, and can become a sustained mental health condition. The symptoms can feel the same, but there is no perceived threat or trigger for how you are feeling. Anxiety can arise out of the blue, leading to muscle aches and pains, racing thoughts, sleep disturbances, tiredness, restlessness, and all the other symptoms that go along with anxiety.
How to know when you’ve moved from stress to anxiety
You can tell you have moved from “normal” stress into anxiety if after a stressful event, the anxious feelings don’t subside. Or if the anxious feelings come upon you for no reason, just out of the blue. These feelings can make it hard to deal with your daily life, and are not easily controlled. Relaxation techniques, physical exercise, and social activities, can all help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
Amorim, D., Amado, J., Brito, I., Fiuza, S.M., Amorim, N., Costeira, C. & Machado, J. (2018). Acupuncture and electroacupuncture for anxiety disorders: A systematic review of the clinical research. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 31, 31-37.
Bazzan, A.J., Zabrecky, G., Monti, D.A. & Newberg A.B. (2014). Current evidence regarding the management of mood and anxiety disorders using complementary and alternative medicine. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 14 (4), 411-423.
Harvard Health Publishing (2018). Understanding the Stress Response. [Online] Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
Jaret, P. (2015) The Surprising Benefits of Stress. [Online] Available at: http://www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-mind/stress/article/surprising-benefits-stress
Mayo Clinic (2016). Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk. [Online] Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037