Are the symptoms of anxiety and stress the same?
The symptoms of anxiety and stress are driven by the same chemical reaction; stress is a normal response to a threatening situation and anxiety is largely caused by worry. In fact, ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’ are just two different words to describe the same experience - the symptoms of a higher heart rate, sweaty palms, churning stomach. All these symptoms, and others, are explained by the physiological changes that occur when the mind and body experience stress or anxiety.
If there is one difference between anxiety and stress, it is that anxiety is usually perceived as more short-term, whereas stress can last for weeks, months, or even years.
The mind creates symptoms of anxiety and stress
Have you ever had the experience of lying in bed and getting a sleepy glimpse of the clock? Then that stomach lurching sensation as you see it is way past the time you had to get up. Up you spring, charging around like a bull in a china shop until suddenly it dawns on you that it can’t really be that late as it is still dark. You look at the clock again and see that you have two hours before you have to get up. So you flop back in to bed and relax deeply.
Thinking that you were late sent alarm signals to your body and it went into overdrive. Your system went into stress mode, anxiety causing symptoms such as racing heart, churning stomach, just as if you were facing a real threat. When you realised that all was well and you had not overslept your whole body calmed down.
The body doesn’t know the difference between an imagined threat and a real one
Your system responds the same whether a threat is real or imagined. So worrying about an interview or facing a real life horror, your body will react with to both with symptoms of anxiety and stress.
Anxiety makes your body think there is real danger
If you have a worrying thought you will experience the same stress symptoms. This is very disturbing if you are in a shop, a meeting or chatting to an old friend. Your heart will begin to race, your palms get sweaty, and clear thinking will become impossible as your brain makes you focus on the source of the threat. Eating also becomes difficult as the peristalsis of the gut almost stops and sex drive plummets along with all other non essential processes.
A worrying thought that creates anxiety causes uncomfortable feelings as well as physical symptoms
Feelings of not being able to cope
Not able to think logically or around problems
Thoughts that you
will pass out or say something ridiculous
want to run away
are worthless and no good
Stress symptoms make us stronger, hyper vigilant and stupid!
To defend ourselves or our family we need to be able to react immediately with extra energy and strength so your body prepares you to fight or flee the situation, (the fight or flight response). It does this by:
- Increasing your levels of oxygen
- Taking more blood to your limbs so that they are stronger
- Constricting the blood vessels so they can pump more blood and oxygen
- Heightening your senses so you can hear, smell and see better
- Stopping you accessing your rational mind so you act on instinct instead of thinking things through
- Suspending all non essential functioning - you don’t need to digest food or have sex if you are in ‘defend and protect’ mode
- Bypassing your conscious mind as your brain prepares for immediate action
A stress reaction can save lives in a threatening situation
With your body primed for action you become faster and stronger. I remember reading about a man who carried his son for several miles after a late night car accident on a country road. It was only after they reached a house that he realised that he had broken his leg and received multiple cuts and bruises. He then felt the pain and passed out.
A policeman I met could not understand why others thought that he was brave running in to a burning building to save the life of a young girl. He said ’ I only remember hearing her cry out, the rest is a blank’.
A middle aged woman had a ceiling collapse on her whilst relaxing in the bath and managed to force the door open when two burly ambulance men had been unable to move it!
How to reduce your stress and anxiety symptoms
One quick way to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety is to change the way that you explain a situation to yourself. That will then change the chemical message that your body receives.
So next time you start to feel that nervous stomach, and get all sweaty and muddled, try to explain the situation to yourself in a way that predicts things going well. That will switch off the fight or flight response and your body will become calm.
Learning to relax can break the pattern
Self hypnosis and breathing techniques can be learnt so you send yourself chemical messages that calm down the anxiety reaction.
Stress is nature’s way of making us more capable of physically defending ourselves; anxiety is a modern phenomenon where the way in which we think triggers the same process. Stress and anxiety can feel the same but the former is right time, right place reaction; and the latter is often a series of negative predictions and ruminations that triggers the defense mechanism.