- Anxiety and stress can present similarly – a pounding heart, feeling warm in your body, racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping – but there are important differences in how people experience them and how they are treated in mental health therapy.
- Rates of anxiety disorders are on the rise, impacting over 40 million adults in the U.S. each year.
- If you are feeling challenged in managing your response to external stressors or your ability to regulate internal anxious thoughts and feelings, consider reaching out to Start My Wellness today.
Our brains are experts at identifying threats in our environment – this is part of the survival instinct that has kept us/our ancestors alive for the last two million years. However, over time and due to changing socio-cultural realities, the nature of the stress that our bodies experience has changed. Some of the challenges people confront in the world today – racism, misogyny and sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, poverty, war and conflict, environmental pollution, difficult working conditions, and more – are complex and constantly changing. And they require people to deal with a lot everyday. And the resulting emotional response that this stress has on our bodies and minds is more complex and constant too.
In addition to changing sociocultural realities, there are individual and interpersonal factors that significantly contribute to anxious thoughts and feelings. How our early relationships with trusted adults, caregivers, siblings and friends shaped our sense of control and self worth; how loss, abuse, injury or other traumatic events shaped our sense of safety and balance; and how we have been taught or not to cope with the twists and turns of life.
Herein lies the main difference between stress and anxiety: stress is a (usually) short term emotional response to an external stressor that goes away when the source of the stress is resolved. For example: a student might experience a higher level of stress in the week leading up to a final exam and then feel a sense of release/lower stress levels when the exam is finished and graded.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a deeply personal emotional response that can be related to external stressors or internal stressors from our own development and relationships. While it is possible to link an anxious feeling to something external and tangible, there are also feelings of anxiety that might seem to come from nowhere – the root is not abundantly clear. This ambiguity can make us feel stuck – if our brains can’t identify the “threat” that is causing our symptoms, then we are unable to develop a strategic response to return our bodies to baseline. For example: a student might experience a higher level of stress in the week leading up to a final exam and continue to feel elevated even once the exam is finished and graded. The student was convinced that their stress was due to the upcoming exam, but due to their experience being raised in a home with unrealistic expectations, they feel underlying anxiety about how their parents might react.
Due to anxiety’s chronic nature and tendency to disrupt a person’s daily life on a consistent basis, it can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders and is commonly studied in many mental health therapy training programs. Additionally, anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed among adults in the US, impacting over 40 million people each year (Read more statistics here: https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics).
If you are struggling with managing your stress or anxiety, it is important to recognize that this is not a personal failure or a commentary on your worth as a human. You are not alone in these feelings and there is help available to you. Reach out to our office today to learn more about how mental health therapy, psychiatric medications, or psychological testing could be part of your personal toolkit for managing these feelings.
Author: Rachel Levy, LLMSW
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*This blog was created with the help of Anton Babushkin
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