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“Stress” and “anxiety” are words we hear regularly and sometimes are erroneously used interchangeably. They refer to different emotional states which differ in severity and will be explored further in this blog.

Stress

Stress is defined as the tension that we experience when we are faced by some type of challenge from the environment. It is typically caused by a variety of different events happening around us. For example: you can feel stressed because you have an upcoming exam. Stress can cause different emotional reactions (such as nervousness, irritability), cognitive reactions (such as worries or fears), or even physical symptoms (such as shallow breathing or an upset stomach). Once the stressor is not present anymore, these symptoms typically go away.

Short, low to moderate amounts of stress motivate us to take action in order to reduce the feeling of stress. When we feel stress related to an exam, it motivates us to put away our phones, take out our notes and study. Stress can also be long-term, caused by events or issues that are present over a period of time, such as discrimination, illness or unemployment. High levels of stress over an extended period of time can have negative consequences on our health and wellbeing, causing issues such as depression, physical pain and weight gain/loss.

Anxiety

Anxiety on the other hand is defined as persistent feelings of uneasiness, worry or even fear that do not go away even if the stressor is not present any more. Often anxiety is linked to excessive worries about the future that hinder us from day to day activities. Similar to stress, anxiety can be manifested in our thoughts, our actions and even in our bodies. Anxiety symptoms are typically more severe than those caused by stress, such as sleep disturbances, exaggerated reactions, impairment from everyday activities and can also cause more severe physical reactions such as panic attacks, nausea, or even fainting. Unlike when stressed, these feelings often happen over longer periods of time, feel constant and can seemingly come out of nowhere.

Managing stress and anxiety

Everyday stress and anxiety can be managed by adopting several different habits into your lifestyle. These may include:

  • Eating a more balanced diet
  • Reducing caffeine and alcohol intake
  • Exercising regularly
  • Making time for hobbies and other favoured activities
  • Getting the required sleep
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Talking to a friend or loved one

If stress and anxiety symptoms are severe, feel unmanageable and limit day to day activities, it may be time to consider seeking the professional help of a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist. Talk therapy can support you to identify and explore intrusive thoughts and help you manage your symptoms, while medication can help by restoring the chemical balance in your brain and alleviate symptoms.

Petra Borg is a Trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist currently reading for a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy from the Gestalt Therapy Institute Malta (GPTIM) and working at Willingness as a Trainee Psychotherapist. She has experience as a Triage Officer and has also worked closely with Willingness over several years, coordinating the international internship programme and providing support over diverse events and initiatives. 

References:
American Psychological Association. (2020). What is the difference between stress and anxiety? Knowing the difference can ensure you get the help you need. Author. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-anxiety-difference#:~:text=People%20under%20stress%20experience%20mental,the%20absence%20of%20a%20stressor.

Ellis, M.E. (2020). 5 ways to tell the difference between stress and anxiety: When to get help. Bridges to recovery. https://www.bridgestorecovery.com/blog/5-ways-to-tell-the-difference-between-stress-and-anxiety-when-to-get-help/

National institute of Mental Health (n.d.). I’m so stressed out! Infographic. Author. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-infographic/index.shtml

Hurley, K. (2020). Stress vs anxiety: Hoe to tell the difference. Psycom.  https://www.psycom.net/stress-vs-anxiety-difference