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Anxiety and Stress

The words stress and anxiety are sometimes used interchangeably. So how can you tell the difference between common stress and an anxiety disorder? Both share many of the same physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, or rapid breathing. In both cases, your body is releasing hormones to trigger these symptoms.

Stress is a normal, proportional reaction to a stressful situation or external pressures. It’s normal to feel stressed about a final exam or job interview. It happens to all of us from time to time. Stress is our brain's response to different situations, both positive and negative. It's important to know your limits when it comes to stress to avoid more serious health effects.

How Stress Affects Your Health

Each of us responds to stress in different ways. Some physical symptoms may include:

  • Digestive symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Sleeplessness
  • Depressed mood
  • Anger and irritability

Over time, continued strain on your body from routine stress may lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety disorder, and other illnesses.

Coping With Stress

The effects of stress tend to build up over time. Taking practical steps to maintain your health and outlook can reduce or prevent these effects. The following are some tips that may help you to cope with stress:

  • Seek help from a qualified mental health care provider if you are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope.
  • Get proper health care for existing or new health problems.
  • Recognize signs of stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
  • Ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations to reduce stress due to work burdens or family issues.
  • Set priorities--decide what must get done and what can wait, and learn to say no to new tasks if they are putting you into overload.
  • Avoid dwelling on problems. If you can't do this on your own, seek help from a qualified mental health professional who can guide you.
  • Exercise regularly--just 30 minutes per day of gentle walking can help boost mood and reduce stress.
  • Schedule regular times for healthy and relaxing activities
  • Explore stress coping programs, which may incorporate gentle exercises, like meditation, yoga, or tai chi) or join a support group.
  • Try stress reliever apps available for free download.

When stress lingers for days or weeks and prevents you from carrying out day-to-day activities, then you may be experiencing anxiety. You could be avoiding certain places or situations in fear of what might happen. You may even feel anxious about the fact that you’re anxious. If you are having these concerns, you are not alone. Anxiety disorders are common and manageable.

When we talk about anxiety as in anxiety disorders, anxiety is a condition characterized by feelings of apprehension or unexplained thoughts of impending doom.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

If you have experienced any of these feelings, and if they won't go away, it may be a sign of anxiety.

  • Constantly tense, worried, or on edge
  • Anxiety interferes with work, school or family responsibilities
  • Fears that you know are irrational, but you just can’t shake them
  • Belief that something bad will happen if certain things aren’t done a certain way
  • Avoid everyday situations or activities because they cause you anxiety
  • Experience sudden, unexpected attacks of heart-pounding panic
  • Feel like danger and catastrophe are around every corner

In addition to some of the feelings you might have, anxiety can cause physical symptoms as well, such as:

  • Heart pounding or racing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Stomach upset or dizziness
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia

 These symptoms may lead to what is known as a panic attack. A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.Many people have just one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes, and the problem goes away, perhaps when a stressful situation ends. But if you've had recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may have a condition called panic disorder.

Treating Anxiety

If you have feelings of worry, stress or anxiety, you can try several Self-Care methods.  If, however, your worries or fears are causing extreme distress or interfering with your daily activities, it is important to contact a healthcare provider.  And, in case of emergency, always CALL 9-1-1.

You can start with your doctor, who can check to see if your anxiety is caused by a medical condition like hypoglycemia or a thyroid problem. Be sure to tell your doctor about all prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, herbal remedies, and recreational drugs you are taking. Your doctor may also recommend that you consult with a therapist who has experience treating anxiety disorders. A therapist will work with you to talk about your feelings and work with you to create a treatment plan.


Source: National Institute on Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)