What Is The Actual Difference Between Stress And Anxiety?

In somewhat stressful news, it seems more and more of us are actually experiencing anxiety than ever before.

In fact, according a study by Seremind two-thirds of Australians either have or will suffer from anxiety at least once in their life.

But how do we know if what we're experiencing is anxiety or stress?  At first glance, you really may not be able to tell. According to General Practitioner Dr Ginni Mansberg, the symptoms are more or less exactly the same.

"The symptoms for both are the same; feeling anxious, stressed and ‘moody’. Sleep being impaired. Physical symptoms like tightness in the chest, nausea, not wanting to eat, palpitations and feeling like you can’t breathe," she told 10 daily.

But, she pointed out, there are actually very clear differences between the two.

  1. "With stress, there is a clear precipitant (there is a round of funding cuts at work, your mum gets diagnosed with cancer etc) and the stress resolves as the crisis resolves. In anxiety it’s there constantly (six months is the official definition).
  2. "In stress you can still go out and enjoy your weekends with the kids or a dinner out with friends. Anxiety starts to cannibalise your free time so that you simply can’t relax and enjoy your life."
  3.  "Anxiety also is linked to some disordered thinking. Kind of like catastrophising. So for example you worry you might get cancer even though there is no reason to believe your risk of cancer is higher than anyone else’s. Or you worry you’ll have a terrible time at a party for no good reason."
  4. "Lastly your behaviour can start to change. You avoid taking the bus to work in case there are sick people on board who give you flu. You avoid going near parks in case there are dogs there that bite people. You keep calling in sick to work so you don’t have to face anyone."

Okay, so if it is anxiety we're suffering with, what can we do when we're in the middle of it to help ourselves? Ginni told 10 daily that to help in the moment, you can use breathing techniques to calm yourself down.

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"Breathe SLOWLY. You get better at this with practice and time. But slowing down your breathing helps normalise oxygen levels to your brain and slows down your heart rate, too" she said.

Close your eyes and just focusing on breathing in for three counts and out for three counts."

Of course, if you do think your stress is more likely to be anxiety, there are some things you should do to help yourself.

"I’m biased but I think your GP is the obvious first port of call," said Dr Ginni. "Your GP knows you, knows your medical history and can help you make sense of your symptoms. Plus we will help you get some meaningful help to combat your anxiety. While you’re waiting to get an appointment, your pharmacist is also a good resource."

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And if you see someone going through a stressful/anxious time, the first thing you should do is listen, then ask; “I’d love to help you. Is there anything I can do to make this better?” Dr Ginni warned that while it can be tempting to give your friend or loved one advice, however well-intentioned, your advice may not be as good for your friend as it was for you. "Getting a lot of advice can make your anxious friend feel worse and like they’ve disappointed you if your advice is unhelpful or they couldn’t even start."

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.