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April 3, 2024

What’s the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety? with Carin Parker, MSW, LCSW

by Carin Parker, MSW, LCSW

Navigating the intricate landscape of mental health, it’s crucial to discern between stress and anxiety, two often intermingled but distinct experiences. As a behavioral health therapist, shedding light on the differences between these two is crucial to fostering effective coping strategies and promoting your well-being. So, what are the differences between stress and anxiety? How do they manifest differently? And what are some coping strategies for both of them?

What is Stress?

Stress typically results from an external trigger which affects a person in the short term and could be a response to a one-time event or repeated events over a long period of time. Someone experiencing stress may experience both mental and physical symptoms including difficulty falling and staying asleep, excessive irritability or anger, digestive issues, muscle tension and headaches.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety, on the other hand, is generally an internal reaction to stress. It usually involves persistent feelings of apprehension and dread that interfere with your lifestyle. It can exist even if no immediate threat is present. Anxiety can lead to physical health issues including insomnia, trouble falling and staying asleep, a weakened immune system, and problems regarding cardiovascular, reproductive, and gastrointestinal systems.

What are Some Coping Strategies for Anxiety and Stress?

A few approaches for coping with mild stress or anxiety include various types of self-care including:

  • Physical Activity: Engaging in regular aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, or cycling to release endorphins, the body’s natural stress relievers, and promote overall well-being.
  • A Nourishing Diet: Consuming a balanced diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats to provide essential nutrients that support brain function and regulate mood.
  • Hydration: Ensuring adequate hydration by drinking sufficient water throughout the day, as dehydration can exacerbate stress and anxiety symptoms.
  • Mindfulness Practice: Cultivating present-moment awareness through mindfulness meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques, or mindful movement practices like tai chi and qigong to foster relaxation and mental clarity.
  • Abdominal Breathing Exercises: Practicing deep breathing exercises that focus on diaphragmatic breathing to activate the body’s relaxation response, reduce physiological arousal, and promote calmness.
  • Visualization Techniques: Utilizing guided imagery or visualization exercises to create mental images of peaceful and calming scenes, promoting relaxation and alleviating stress and anxiety.
  • Yoga Practice: Incorporating yoga poses (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation to enhance flexibility, strength, and mental resilience, while reducing stress and promoting emotional balance.
  • Restorative Rest: Prioritizing quality sleep and incorporating relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, body scans, or aromatherapy to optimize restorative rest and rejuvenate both body and mind.

How a Therapist Can Help

A therapist can support you by providing psychoeducation regarding how your body and brain respond to stress and anxiety, helping you to identify what is contributing to anxiety and stress, how to challenge anxious thoughts, and how to manage your symptoms in the moment and overtime. Some of those specific methods are:

  • Psychoeducation: Therapists offer valuable psychoeducation, providing insights into how the body and brain respond to stress and anxiety. Understanding the physiological and psychological mechanisms underlying these responses empowers individuals to recognize and navigate their experiences more effectively.
  • Identifying Contributing Factors: Through collaborative exploration, therapists assist individuals in identifying the specific triggers and underlying factors contributing to their anxiety and stress. This process involves examining past experiences, current circumstances, thought patterns, and behavioral patterns to gain clarity and insight.
  • Challenging Anxious Thoughts: Therapists employ cognitive-behavioral techniques to help individuals challenge and reframe anxious thoughts. By identifying and questioning irrational or distorted thinking patterns, individuals learn to cultivate more balanced and adaptive perspectives, reducing the intensity of anxiety symptoms.
  • Symptom Management Strategies: Therapists equip individuals with a toolkit of evidence-based coping strategies tailored to their unique needs and preferences. These strategies may include relaxation techniques, stress management skills, emotion regulation strategies, and effective problem-solving techniques to mitigate symptoms both in the moment and over time.
  • Developing Coping Skills: Therapists facilitate the development of adaptive coping skills that enhance resilience and promote emotional well-being. This may involve building skills in mindfulness, assertiveness, communication, boundary-setting, self-care, and interpersonal effectiveness to navigate stressors and challenges more effectively.
  • Building Emotional Regulation: Therapists support individuals in developing greater emotional awareness and regulation skills, enabling them to tolerate distressing emotions without becoming overwhelmed. By learning to identify and express emotions in healthy ways, individuals can reduce the impact of stress and anxiety on their mental health.
  • Promoting Self-Compassion: Therapists emphasize the importance of self-compassion and self-care as essential components of managing stress and anxiety. Encouraging individuals to cultivate a kind and nurturing relationship with themselves fosters resilience, self-acceptance, and emotional well-being amidst life’s challenges.
  • Encouraging Progress and Growth: Therapists provide ongoing encouragement, validation, and support as individuals progress on their journey towards managing stress and anxiety. Celebrating milestones, acknowledging efforts, and fostering a sense of hope and optimism are integral to sustaining motivation and momentum in the therapeutic process.

By working collaboratively with a therapist, individuals can gain invaluable support, guidance, and skills to effectively manage stress and anxiety, ultimately enhancing their overall quality of life and well-being.

As you reflect on the complexities of your life, it’s essential to consider how stress and anxiety may be impacting your well-being and quality of life. Take a moment to examine your experiences, identifying any patterns of stress or anxiety that may be influencing your daily functioning and overall happiness. Whether it’s the demands of work, relationships, or personal challenges, recognizing and addressing these concerns is the first step towards reclaiming control and fostering resilience.

If you find yourself grappling with stress and anxiety, know that you’re not alone. Seeking support from a qualified therapist can provide invaluable guidance and assistance on your journey towards healing and growth. At Avance Care Behavioral Health, we offer a comprehensive range of services tailored to meet your unique needs and preferences. Whether you prefer in-person or virtual appointments, our team of experienced therapists is here to support you every step of the way.

Don’t let stress and anxiety hold you back from living a fulfilling and meaningful life. Take the first step towards healing today by scheduling an appointment with Avance Care Behavioral Health. Together, we can work towards a brighter, more hopeful future where you can thrive and flourish.

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