What Exactly Is the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety? - Medshield Movement

What Exactly Is the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

It has been a tough year for many of us due to the continuing strain that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our mental health, as well as upheaval and turmoil caused by recent lootings and taxi violence in various parts of South Africa. It’s no wonder so many of us are feeling stressed, exhausted and anxious. Medshield spoke to counselling psychologist, Jacqui Morgan of Morgan Practice in Johannesburg about the difference between stress and anxiety and the physical symptoms they present.

“Although stress and anxiety may share many of the same physical and emotional symptoms, such as mood fluctuations, tension, uneasiness, digestive upsets, fatigue, disturbed sleep, headaches, they have different origins,” explains Jacqui Morgan.

Stress Defined

“Generally,” she says, “stress is a response to an external circumstance – social, physical or economic. For example, like a tight deadline at work or an upcoming exam.”

“Unlike anxiety, stress subsides once the situation has passed or been resolved. Some degree of stress is natural and can even be helpful. Its roots are evolutionary and ensures part of our survival. Without it, we would not rise to meet life’s challenges, may risk missing a work deadline or be underprepared for an exam,” explains Jacqui. So, we understand that some level of stress is natural and helpful.

Jacqui further shared that everyone experiences stress differently due to their unique genetic make-up and histories. “Where one person might experience a certain level of stress as exciting, another may experience psychological and even physical strain. Coping skills are important to combat stress because in the absence of these, a person might feel as if the external situation exceeds their available internal resources, and one may start feeling overwhelmed,” she explains.

Anxiety Defined

“Anxiety is a specific reaction to stress which originates internally through our unique nervous systems, shaped by our specific histories and genetic predispositions,” explains Jacqui. “Anxiety is often characterised by a feeling of apprehension, fear or dread that persists after the stressful situation has passed.” Which, as Jacqui previously explained, is different to a feeling of stress, which eases after the situation has passed.

“Fear is the emotional response to a real or perceived threat, whereas anxiety is the anticipation of future possible threats. Anxiety persists in situations that are not threatening, and psychological interventions often work to gently challenge the irrational nature of anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviours,” she explains. However, Jacqui does say that through exposure to chronic stress, we may become more vulnerable to experiencing anxiety. “Unmanaged and/or chronic stress is a trigger for anxiety. It is important to identify and manage our stress and anxiety symptoms to prevent the development of an anxiety disorder,” she points out.

Stress VS Anxiety Symptoms

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhoea, constipation and nausea
  • Tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire or ability

 Physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Pounding and accelerated heart rate
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain, nausea, digestive issues
  • Sweating
  • Cold chills or hot flushes
  • Depersonalisation and Derealisation (thoughts and feelings seem not to belong to oneself or seem unreal)
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sleep issues (trouble falling asleep and/or frequent waking)

“In addition to the above, children and adolescents experiencing anxiety report difficulty concentrating, as well as irritability, restlessness and nervousness,” says Jacqui.

If you’re struggling with stress or anxiety, but are unsure whether you should seek help or not, read our article: How Do You Know When It’s Time To Seek Help For Stress Or Anxiety

Jacqui works with individuals and groups at a psychiatric residence and co-facilitates a DBT group for adolescents. She currently belongs to several academic groups where she continues her professional development and stays informed on best practices. Her approach is largely informed by a psychodynamic perspective, and she works with each client according to their needs. For more information and to book an appointment, you can email her at Jacqui@morganpractice.co.za.

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