Stress and anxiety are normal reactions of our body to external causes and both have almost the same symptoms. However, there is a difference.
What sets them apart is the presence of a specific trigger. While stress is a bodily response prompted by your brain and nervous system to tackle an external challenge, anxiety is a psychological condition that can persist even when there are no triggers or external causes.
Body’s natural response
Stress is a bodily reaction to a trigger or stressor – such as an upcoming exam for a student. It eventually helps the body to adjust to new or pressing circumstances. A temporary phenomenon, its intensity increases or decreases depending on external stressors. For instance, once the exam is over, the student will be stress-free.
A stressor can be anything from regular chores to life-changing events. For instance, a tiger was a stressor to early humans; today, a speeding car can be stressful to anyone out on the road.
Many possible symptoms
Stress manifests in physical, emotional, and behavioural reactions. A person may experience one or more signs such as irritability, moodiness, anger, sadness, faster heartbeat, faster breathing, fatigue, muscle pain, anxiousness, digestive issues (diarrhoea or constipation), dizziness, nausea, insomnia, and loss of interest in work.
Sonali Mitra, a senior communications professional in Delhi finds that her high-pressure job gives her frequent bouts of stress. Her stressors are timelines to complete projects, outcomes falling short of expectations, pressures from her managers, ensuring her team’s productivity, and holding challenging discussions with peers or seniors.
Dr Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya, a psychiatrist practising in Kolkata, says, “For children, the stress is from peers and school; in the elderly, it is isolation and financial challenges. Adolescents have their own set of challenges.”
- a tough task or tight deadline at work or in personal sphere
- managing household expenses
- a tiff with a friend, colleague, or family member
- pregnancy, childbirth
- illness or death of a loved one
- trauma, illness, losing a job, and relocation.
Good in small doses
“Stress is an integral part of life and life would be boring without it. So, it is natural to be stressed sometimes,” says Damini Grover, counselling psychologist in Delhi.
“We all are capable of stretching a bit to handle an added burden and the demands it places on us,” she says.
However, every individual responds to a situation or crisis differently, hence, the levels of stress also vary with individuals. When the intensity of the stressors increases and remains so for a long duration, it can lead to chronic stress, and take a toll on physical and emotional health, adds Grover.
But small amounts of stress are not bad because they keep you vigilant, motivated, and prepared for any untoward incident. The good thing is that it is a temporary phenomenon; when the challenging situation that caused the stress has been taken care of, stress subsides.
The stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020 and how people coped with its severe bouts are the best examples in recent times.
Feeling of threat
Anxiety is an exaggerated perception of threat, explains Dr Bhattacharyya. A person having anxiety will have persistent, unwarranted worries and fears that will not go away even in the absence of an external cause, or long after the stressful episode has passed.
When people experience anxiety, their `fight or flight’ system gets activated by the autonomic nervous system. It remains stimulated for a long duration, which can lead to complexities.
“The continuous activation of the nervous system affects and creates complications in our systems, leading to illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes, to name a few,” says Grover.
Anxiety also manifests as almost the same set of symptoms as stress, including insomnia, fatigue, and irritability.
Dealing with the twin malaises
Sometimes the individual has ready solutions for coping with symptoms of stress and anxiety. Sonali Mitra, for instance, practices breathing exercises whenever she is under stress. “Dancing to Bollywood numbers relaxes me,” she says.
She also resorts to listening to her favourite songs, playing with her pet, telephoning friends, or sipping green tea to calm her nerves.
“Sometimes, I just pray and chant mantras. It calms my mind and improves my focus,” she says.
According to Grover, stress management includes practising meditation, regular exercise, keeping oneself busy with a hobby, making time for self-care, connecting with family and friends– or counselling.
Getting a perspective and accepting the realities of the situation causing stress also to help in coping, as does eating a balanced diet. “Yoga and meditation are effective in the long term,” says Dr Bhattacharyya.
The brown paper bag trick
A simple activity called the brown paper bag technique has been very effective in controlling hyperventilation during anxiety attacks, says Dr Bhattacharyya. It involves breathing into a paper bag and putting the exhaled carbon dioxide back into the lungs and body.
- Take a small paper bag and hold it over your mouth and nose.
- Breathe in and out 6-12 times naturally into the bag.
- Remove the bag from your mouth and nose, and take a few breaths.
- Repeat as required.
The signs and when to seek help
Observing one’s daily routine can provide a cue to knowing if help is needed. “If one’s daily productivity is going down and the anxiety is unmanageable then help must be sought,” says Dr Bhattacharyya.
Grover lists these changes one should look out for:
- The person is constantly moody;
- May have sleep disorders;
- Lack of appetite or binge eating;
- Low energy levels;,
- Finds it tough to carry out daily activities and needs help
Simple yet effective ways to tackle them
- Adequate, timely sleep is very important to recharge the brain and make the body fit and healthy to take on challenges
- Regular exercise boosts one’s energy levels and lifts the mood. It increases the production of endorphins in the brain and nervous system, and they help to alleviate pain and induce a feeling of pleasure.
- Meditation calms the mind and the body. It teaches us how to cultivate peace of mind and focus on the relevant and positive aspects of life.
- Limiting caffeine intake: Excessive caffeine consumption increases cortisol levels in the body and leads to stress; this can cause sleep and anxiety disorders.
- Reducing alcohol consumption and smoking is essential as they are harmful to the body and cause several health conditions – hypertension, and heart problems among others. This can worsen one’s stress and anxiety situation.
- Music not only entertains but also helps one to unwind. It lowers the stress hormone cortisol and releases endorphins, the `happiness’ hormones.
- Make time for hobbies like gardening, knitting, reading, drawing, and painting, and puzzles that keep your mind away from worries and bring a sense of calm.
- Keep a journal of things that make you anxious: Jotting down thoughts and emotions help you understand your feelings and give you a perspective to handle stress.