Stress and anxiety are both emotions we will all have experienced to different degrees. They can feel very similar because both trigger our fight or flight response which is the way our body responds to a threat. This response aims to help us survive the threat which, in our primal days, generally required us to fight or flee – hence the name. To help us expend the energy needed to survive, the fight or flight response triggers a number of changes in our body to optimise performance. If we’re not actually physically fighting or fleeing from a threat, these changes in our body can leave us with symptoms such as an increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension or shaking, and light-headedness.

As the physical symptoms can be the same for both stress and anxiety, it can be difficult to figure out what we’re feeling. Often, knowing and naming what we feel puts us in a stronger position to make changes that that help us feel better. I am frequently asked how to know whether we’re feeling stressed or anxious, so this stress awareness month, here are three ways to help differentiate between the two.

Stress and Anxiety Triggers

We feel stressed when the demands placed on us feel greater than we feel able to manage. When we are stressed, the triggers are usually current or imminent. We may be stressed by the amount of work we have to do in a day, for example. We may feel stressed at work if we have lots of deadlines, or stressed in our home lives if we’re juggling lots of caring responsibilities.

With anxiety, the triggers are usually future-focused. Rather than feeling concerned about our high workload currently, we may find ourselves worrying about the implications of this and catastrophising. This often involves ‘what if’ thinking – what if I can’t do it and lose my job? What if I make a mistake with terrible consequences? Thinking about these scenarios causes us to feel anxious and fearful about them occurring. We may then try to think through worst case scenarios to try and prepare for different outcomes. This can often make us feel even more anxious.

Duration of Stress and Anxiety

Stress will often reduce when the triggers have passed. For example, you may feel stressed in the run up to an interview and notice you feel clammy and your heart rate increases beforehand. Afterwards, you will likely feel a sense of relief and notice the stress subsides. This is a very natural response. However, in cases of chronic stress, where triggers are reoccurring or have no clear end point, you may experience ongoing symptoms of stress and benefit from some support managing with this.

With anxiety, there isn’t always a clear trigger. For example, you may worry about work for a period, then about your health, or finances without experiencing any real problems in any of these areas. It’s not uncommon for anxiety to jump from one theme to another and so it can feel endless. Although it can seem this way, it’s important to know that anxiety is extremely common and treatable.

Response to Stress and Anxiety

Stress is usually action-driven and centred on the number of tasks or demands we have to manage at once. When we feel stressed, we usually want to get something done or out of the way to relieve us of the pressure we are feeling. However, if we feel overwhelmed by our load, we may turn to avoidance as a coping strategy.

With anxiety, we usually want to avoid a feared outcome. The behaviours we turn to for this may include mentally planning or rehearsing, thinking through possible outcomes and worrying about different scenarios. These behaviours take up a lot of mental energy and can leave us feeling exhausted and demoralised.

How CBT Can Help with Stress and Anxiety

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for stress or anxiety, the aim is to build self-awareness of how we feel, what triggers these feelings, what we think and what we do in response to them. Once we have a good understanding of what is causing the problem and keeping it going, we are then in a stronger position to start taking action to make positive changes that reduce our stress and anxiety.

As CBT focuses on the way we think and behave, change is made through re-appraising our current patterns of thought and behaviour so that we can respond to triggers in a way that is more helpful for us. Throughout the therapy process, we work together to achieve goals that are important to you and build up a toolkit of helpful coping strategies to use both in the present and also long-term so that you can confidently manage any future triggers.

Find out more about stress here.
Find out more about anxiety here.
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