Stress vs Anxiety: the Differences and Ways to Cope

Stress is everywhere. There is no living life without it. But we can change the way we relate to the stress we’re experiencing, which can reduce anxiety. 

We often use the terms stress and anxiety interchangeably, but they are not the same. Simply put, stress is a physical and emotional reaction to a real or perceived threat. Anxiety more often than not is a reaction to stress. 

In fact, anxiety is defined by persistent, excessive worries that do not go away, even in the absence of a stressor. Stress is a broader term, which is both physical and psychological and can be either good or bad. 

Anxiety, on the other hand, is almost always unpleasant. It is as if your body is saying that it is experiencing too much stress all at once.

What does stress do to your body?

The stress response begins in the brain. Whether you are running away from a bear or are reacting to the 5,000 new emails in your inbox, you experience the same response. The sense organs send the information to the amygdala, the part of the limbic system responsible for processing and regulating emotions and memory. If the amygdala interprets danger, whether it be a bear or emails, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. 

The hypothalamus is a command center that communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions. It affects breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, dilation or constriction of key blood vessels, and small airways in the lungs.

The autonomic nervous system has two parts: 

  • The sympathetic nervous system triggers the “fight or flight” response, providing the body with a burst of energy to deal with the threat. 
  • The parasympathetic nervous system promotes the “rest and digest” response, which calms the body down after the danger has passed. 

Once the amygdala sends the distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys. The adrenals start to pump epinephrine into the bloodstream, which makes the heart beat faster, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate, blood pressure, and breath rate go up. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Digestion slows down. Epinephrine triggers the release of glucose and fats, which flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body. This happens fast.

If the brain continues to see something as a threat, the adrenal glands will be prompted by the hypothalamic-pituitary axis to release cortisol, keeping the body on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels fall, and the parasympathetic nervous system puts on the brakes and dampens the stress response. If you were running from a bear, you either got away or you didn’t. Assuming you weren’t the bear’s dinner, the stress is over, and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. 

Chronic stress from chronic emails and the anxiety that might go with it, keep that hypothalamic-pituitary axis activated, leading to a host of health problems such as: 

  • high blood pressure, which can raise the risk of heart attacks or strokes
  • elevated cortisol levels, which can contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and weight gain
  • immune deficiencies
  • digestive disorders
  • diabetes
  • sleep disturbance 

Our bodies are designed to handle small doses of stress. We are not equipped to handle long-term, chronic stress.

What does anxiety do to your body?

Anxiety is a fear or apprehension about what is to come. Anxiety may be unpleasant, but it can also motivate you. You might feel anxious about moving to a new place, taking a test, starting a new job, even having a baby. Ordinary anxiety comes and goes, but if the feeling of fear is with you all the time, it can be debilitating. 

When we get too used to stress always being around, it can create a pattern of anxious reactivity, creating more distress in our lives and affecting overall health and wellbeing. When anxiety becomes the “go-to” response to stress or even the anticipation of the external threat or stressor, it becomes the fuel that keeps the fires of stress burning. 

Nonetheless, whether you are experiencing a stress response or anxiety, they both lead to a nearly identical set of symptoms. Basically, the body is getting hammered the same way. Understandably, both mild stress and anxiety respond well to a similar set of coping mechanisms. Most are designed to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system into gear (i.e., elicit the relaxation response) and/or teach you ways to relate to the stressful situation. If we can relate differently, we can choose how we respond versus reacting habitually.

Ten ways to relieve stress and anxiety

Here are a few lifestyle tips on how to manage stress and anxiety:

1.) Do yoga

When you do yoga, you initiate a process that turns off the fight or flight response and turns on the relaxation response. The deep breathing, the stretching, the movements that release muscle tension, the focus on being present in your body and getting out of your head, all have a dramatic effect on the body. When you practice yoga, the heartbeat slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases–that is why it often feels so good. 

But the process is not automatic. Yoga is not about trying to do the next coolest pose or displaying to everyone all that you can do. The true experience of yoga is not competitive or comparative. You must have patience and cajole your body and mind off the ledge of ambition and anxiety, learning to surrender to the process. Then you have arrived. You’ve earned it–enjoy the savasana (corpse pose), the final relaxation pose!

2.) Breathe

Breath is intimately connected with the mind and the nervous system. Thus, when we begin to control our breath, we calm the body and mind. Breathing deeply to expand the ribcage and abdomen along with breathing through the nose is more efficient and effective at tamping down the sympathetic nervous system. 

When you inhale, the heart rate speeds up. When you exhale, it slows down. When you lengthen your exhales, you signal the vagus nerve, which triggers that parasympathetic nervous system (remember, it is responsible for the “rest & digest” responses in the body). By learning to slow the breath and double the length of the exhale in a moment of distress, it will slow the system down, allowing you to pause and profoundly affect how you feel and respond.

3.) Learn to meditate

There are many types of meditation and many ways meditation can help. The beauty of all meditation is that it grounds you in the present moment. When our minds are ruminating over the past or anxiously worrying about the future, we become stressed and anxious. 

Any meditation type that brings you to presence–whether it be mantra-based, breath-based, or sound-based – has a calming effect that can be profound.

4.) Be Mindful 

Mindfulness is especially helpful because when you learn to create space between yourself and what you are experiencing, your anxiety can soften. Mindfulness can be a seated practice, but it can also be practiced in daily life. 

With Mindfulness, we learn to stay with whatever is happening in the mind and body, with kindness and curiosity, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. This trains you to stay with difficult feelings without analyzing, suppressing, or encouraging them. When you allow yourself to feel, acknowledge, and name your worries or any other difficult thoughts and emotions, this helps them dissipate. Mindfulness helps you to create space around your anxieties so that they do not consume you. 

In effect, by turning toward your anxious thoughts rather than away from them or trying to fight them, you gain insight into what is driving them. With practice, you begin to realize that you are not your thoughts, and you do not have to believe them. The more curious you can be, the more open and receptive to change you will be. You might not be able to alter a situation, but now you have the space to make a choice as to how you respond.

5.) Do yoga nidra or a body scan meditation

Yoga nidra, or yogic sleep as it is commonly known, is a powerful meditation technique and one of the easiest yoga practices to develop and maintain. It is a practice intended to bring the mind into a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping. You rest comfortably in savasana and are guided through a body scan journey, leaving you with a sense of wholeness. Yoga Nidra works directly with the autonomic nervous system, making it deeply relaxing and transformative. 

A body scan meditation allows you to tune into your body and notice any sensations you are feeling without judgment. By mentally scanning yourself, you bring awareness to every single part of your body, noticing any aches, pains, or general tension. If you are feeling stress or anxiety, you can learn through the body scan where you feel the sensation in your body. You get to know it and learn from it so you can better manage it. 

This form of mindfulness meditation trains the mind to be more open and aware of sensory experiences. By tuning into the body, you can learn over time when you are feeling anxious before you cognitively even know it. This can also change how you respond to the stressor.

6.) Exercise

Movement eats anxiety! Physical movement can stifle the buildup of stress. It deepens breathing and can relieve muscle tension. Once again, it can get you out of the soap opera in your head and ground you into your body. Whether it be running, yoga, tai chi, or what have you, exercise can induce calm.

7.) Get out in nature 

Put down your smartphone and get outside. Studies have shown that time in nature is an antidote to stress and that we are physically and mentally healthier when we interact with nature. 

Nature can lower blood pressure, muscle tension, and stress hormone levels. In effect, the natural world turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing anxiety and improving mood.  When we are outside, we open up our vision to a more panoramic view, seeing everything around us. This results in the magical sense of “ Aahhhhh…” that your autonomic nervous system just loves.

8.) Be social!

We are social beings, and we benefit from the support of close relationships with family and friends. The emotional support you receive can help sustain you at times of chronic stress. Never underestimate the power of friends and community to get you through troubled times.

9.) Eat well

Food can have a pivotal impact on our mood and can reduce symptoms of anxiety. A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits is a healthier option than eating a lot of simple carbohydrates found in processed foods. Eat nuts and seeds, low-starch beans and legumes, and some high-quality meat, poultry, and fish. Foods rich in omega-3s, zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, antioxidants, and B vitamins have been shown to impact mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Also, when you eat is crucial. It is best not to skip meals. Doing so may result in drops in blood sugar that cause you to feel jittery, which may worsen underlying anxiety. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, as both can make you edgy and interfere with sleep.

10.) Consider supplements

Some supplements can help reset the parasympathetic nervous system and support adrenal function. Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and Magnolia are all adaptogenic herbs that help support the body’s physiological response to stress and anxiety. L-Theanine, found in green tea, has a calming effect while simultaneously improving alertness. 

Taking a multivitamin and including probiotics can help support the gut-brain axis, which in turn can help your general mood and overall health.

Learn to cope with stress and anxiety

In the end, anxiety is an all-too-common reaction to stress. Being constantly in the fight-flight mode can lead to a host of problems. Before it takes over you, you can start to take small steps to help alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety. 

One thing we want to avoid is getting caught up in patterns of reactivity, in which we create more distress in our lives. The more we can take action with awareness, the more we can learn to support our own wellbeing. This change often leads to a remarkable shift in how we relate to our own stress and anxiety. Over time we can learn to approach stress and anxiety with patience, understanding, and kindness. 

Just CTFO This Holiday Season!

These days anything that is anything has an acronym.  IMO, SMH, TTYL, WFH, IDK, YOLO, and the list goes on.  So, I created my own.  It’s CTFO.  That’s right.  CHILL THE *F* OUT.  A constant reminder

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