If ruminating thoughts, heart palpitations and freak-outs are becoming commonplace, you might be wondering whether you’re suffering stress or more serious anxiety.
Stress and anxiety can have similar symptoms and the words are often used interchangeably, however psychologists say it’s worth distinguishing between the two so you can help yourself fare better.
“Stress usually occurs in response to some stressful event or threat – it’s situational and there’s usually something causing it,” Dr Grant Blashki, Beyond Blue Lead Clinical Advisor, tells Coach.
So that’s the stomach-churning, thought-racing response to an insurmountable work deadline, first date nerves or exam worries that disappear after the worrying event.
“We don’t need to medicalise natural everyday stress – it can be quite useful [in terms of] helping us get motivated and giving us a sense of energy about doing something,” Dr Blashki says.
“Everyday stress is not a bad thing.”
Anxiety, on the other hand, can have similar symptoms when there are no obvious threats or stressors about.
“Anxiety conditions usually persist in a chronic way, even when the external stressor has gone away … they are still feeling worried about something even when they are away from the triggering situation,” Dr Blashki explains.
There are a number of types of diagnosable anxiety conditions, including social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
When it comes to distinguishing between stress and anxiety, Dr Blashki, who is a practicing GP, says he talks to his patients about the broader effects on their lives.
“The symptoms of stress and anxiety are pretty similar – racing heart, upset stomach, skin problems and period pain,” he explains.
“The sort of questions I look at to decide whether someone has an anxiety disorder is: how is it affecting their life, their relationships, their ability to work, and their capacity to participate in things they want to do like catching up with friends or travelling.”
Health psychologist Dr Marny Lishman says stress can turn into anxiety for some people.
“Anxiety is a long-term reaction – there’s lots of thinking and ruminating, and it manifests into physical symptoms,” Dr Lishman explains.
“For example, you might have financial stressors and constantly ruminate about it and you start feeling sick and nauseous and get irritable bowel symptoms.”
Dr Lishman says a good way to think about the difference is to imagine being approached by a vicious dog.
“If a dog runs up to you bearing it’s teeth, you’d have a stress response because it’s a threat but when you get away, the stress response goes off,” she says.
“But [in] anxiety, you would be constantly fearful of the dog, thinking about it a lot and experiencing ongoing distress that interrupts your life, so much so that you can’t do the things you normally do.”
Dr Lishman says that stress can drive us to achieve while anxiety can hold us back.
“Anxiety will often affect your work life, your sleep, your relationships and how far you push yourself … it wants you to stay in your comfort zone,” she explains.
How to calm down
Whether you suffer stress or anxiety, the first-line treatment suggestions are quite similar.
“There’s a whole raft of things people can do that will help them, regardless of whether it’s stress or an anxiety disorder,” Dr Blashki says.
“There’s good research evidence that regular exercise helps reduce stress and anxiety symptoms. [We also suggest] trying to reduce stress at work and home; reducing stimulants like caffeine; quitting smoking; trying to get enough sleep; and eating a healthy diet.”
The good news is that Dr Blashki says people with anxiety disorders often respond really well to working with a psychologist.
“If someone thinks they have an anxiety disorder, it’s good to get professional diagnosis,” he says.
“GPs can do a Mental Health Plan for six Medicare-subsidised sessions with a psychologist.”
There’s lots of evidence for the psychological technique called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) working well for anxiety sufferers.
“It’s focused on challenging negative thinking patterns – people get caught up with catastrophising or black-and-white thinking or guessing what other people are thinking about them, so we challenge that,” Dr Blashki says.
“We see patients who have had years of panic attacks [learn] what is going on and use slow breathing [techniques] and helpful thinking patterns [and] they start to get better and regain their confidence.”
In severe cases, anxiety sufferers can be put on medication.
If you’re prone to stress or anxiety, Dr Blashki suggests taking some time to proactively look after yourself.
“Monitor your stress levels, schedule some time off where you put away your phone and contact with work,” he says.
“Plan some relaxing activities like exercising or listening to music or taking a walk in nature.”