Recognizing the difference between stress and anxiety

August 19, 2010

Let's face it. Life is a lot more pleasant without either stress or anxiety, but most of us have to deal with each at some point.

Stress is your body's response to a wide range of outside demands or situations involving things like traffic jams, crowds, finances, work, relationships, family or that old standby, too many demands and too little time. Of course, a little stress can be beneficial when it leads you to solutions that make life more manageable — high monthly bills may trigger stress that drives you to budget your money better, for example. But living with constant stress overload can cause discord at home or on the job as well as health problems. You may be suffering from excessive stress if you tend to react with anger, have mood swings, experience chronic fatigue, gain or lose weight, abuse alcohol, withdraw from relationships or quit successive jobs.

Anxiety, on the other hand, often involves a general sense of dread, fear or worry for no immediate reason. A past traumatic experience or a period of chronic stress can lead to anxiety. Signs of anxiety include sweating, dry mouth, muscle tension or headaches, twitching or trembling, a racing heart, sleep difficulties, fatigue and an inability to concentrate. If anxiety becomes excessive and prevents you from leading a healthy, fulfilling life, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Serenity now!
It's probably not realistic to extinguish stress entirely, but you may be able to reduce it or cope with it better if you accept that there are some things in life you can't control. Practice relaxation techniques, get adequate sleep, exercise regularly and maintain a nutritious diet. Be sure to leave a little space in your daily schedule so you can manage these lifestyle measures.

To help quell your anxiety, follow the same healthy lifestyle measures outlined above for controlling stress. In addition, limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol. Try to restrict your worrying to a short period each day and find ways to face the issues that cause you anxiety. Certain drugs such as thyroid medication, antidepressants, cold remedies and decongestants may contribute to anxiety, so check with your doctor to discuss your options.

Talking over your worries with a caring, trustworthy friend can help ease anxiety. A self-help group, social worker or clergy member can also offer useful outlets to help you deal with your feelings.

Are you suffering from anxiety?
Review these statements to help determine if anxiety has a lock on your life. If your anxiety feels out of control, talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional who can show you how to cope with your anxiety and provide medication, if needed.

• Worry or anxiety prevents me from concentrating on tasks and making decisions.

• I always have the feeling — not based on reality — that something catastrophic is about to happen.

• I'm afraid to try new things.

• I avoid certain people, places and things for fear that something terrible will happen.

• I worry about everything I must do to get through the day — driving to work, my performance at home or on the job, and what others think of me.

• I devote at least an hour a day to meaningless rituals, such as counting objects or repeated hand washing.

• Anxiety prevents me from sleeping well, so I rely on pills to get me through the night.

• I use alcohol to help me cope with my nerves.

• I have many unexplained physical problems, such as nausea, heartburn or dizziness.

For program information related to anxiety or other conditions, please call 860.224.5804.