Stress and anxiety are emotional and physical states that can occur in the body and mind. Both may serve a purpose to keep you safe from danger, let you know when a situation is dangerous, or keep you wary of your surroundings. Many people struggle with how to deal with stress and anxiety in their everyday life. According to data from the Center for Disease Control, stress accounts for a significant number of doctor visits.
However, if stress and anxiety start to impact your daily functioning negatively, they may be a sign of an underlying mental health concern. Understanding how to cope with your emotions and symptoms healthily when you feel stressed can be valuable in these cases.
What Are Anxiety And Stress?
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is the mental process your brain and body undergo in response to dangerous, complex, or dramatic situations—often characterized by tension, physical changes, and anxious thoughts. Anxiety is a temporary experience that often fades as the circumstances change. However, the human brain is a complex organic machine, and neural pathways can sometimes deviate from expected patterns, creating altered responses to stressors and potential anxiety disorders where symptoms linger and worsen over time. Constantly feeling stressed can also put one at a higher risk of developing a serious illness, such as heart disease.
Often, stress refers to strain or pressure. People experience stress in many ways. For example, physical stress can be caused by disease or illness and can interfere with body function. Emotional stress, such as grief, can substantially impact your mood, thought patterns, and actions.
Finally, psychological stress, like fear, can trigger your body's fight or flight response to perceived danger. However, even though college is a time of growth and learning, it can also be a very stressful time for the average student. A stressed student can have trouble processing their feelings for various reasons and can develop mental health conditions.
- Acute Stress: Acute stress is short-term and most often encountered in daily life.
- Chronic Stress: Persistent stress that feels inescapable and often stems from long-term situations, such as marriage troubles or a difficult job. Chronic stress can also result from adverse childhood or adult experiences.
- Episodic Acute Stress: Episodic stress can feel like a way of life. You may habitually react to stressors a certain way, leading to ongoing distress.
- Eustress: Eustress is positive stress that can feel energizing and fun, motivating you with adrenaline surges. Examples might include a rush of energy upon seeing the finish line of a race or feeling challenged to finish a critical project milestone.
How Stress And Anxiety Can Affect Your Life
Many people with anxiety disorders can perceive that they are constantly facing danger, leaving their bodies "stuck" in fight or flight mode. One of the qualifiers for anxiety disorders is a disruption in functional abilities. Anxiety can interfere with your capacity to perform in many areas of your life, such as school, work, or interpersonal relationships.
Are you worried about how to lower stress in your body? When your body is subjected to high stress levels for an extended period, you may produce excessive stress hormones and begin noticing effects on your health. Chronic stress can cause additional wear and tear on your body, potentially damaging your overall health and well-being.
Many people with chronic stress or anxiety disorders experience gastrointestinal symptoms, such as stomachaches, gas, acid reflux, or diarrhea. If you are experiencing these concerns, eating healthy meals, watching your caffeine intake, and using coping strategies may reduce symptoms.
Chronic stress may damage your immune system, making catching colds and other infections easier.
Nervous System Concerns
Long-term stress can affect your brain and nervous system. It may also lead to mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, as well as contribute to insomnia, memory, and decision-making challenges.
People with chronic stress may experience increased blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. These symptoms can be risk factors for heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions. If you are experiencing hypertension (high blood pressure) or other cardiovascular health concerns, consult your doctor for guidance.
Understanding The Symptoms Of Stress And Anxiety
Stress and anxiety have similar symptoms and often respond well to similar coping strategies. People experiencing stress may have multiple mental and physical symptoms related to a specific external stressor. However, excessive worries may not fade for those with anxiety disorders when a stressor is absent.
Common Anxiety Symptoms
Below are common symptoms of anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD):
- Physical: Headache, increased heart rate, hyperventilation or other breathing troubles, fatigue, stomachache, shaking, sweating, unexplained pain
- Emotional: Mood swings, stress, disorientation, persistent nervousness, irritability, "brain fog," trouble concentrating or making decisions, difficulty controlling worry, a sense of impending doom
- Behavioral: Actively avoiding places, people, and situations that may cause anxiety, changes in sleep patterns, shifts in eating habits
Common Stress Symptoms
Below are a few common symptoms of chronic stress:
- Physical: Headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, changes in sex drive, stomachache, shifts in sleep habits
- Emotional: Anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation, trouble focusing, feeling overwhelmed, irritability, sadness, or depression
- Behavioral: Overeating or undereating, out-of-character outbursts, substance use, social withdrawal, decrease in physical activity, which can also increase stress
If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
Anxiety And Stress-Related Disorders
Several anxiety and stress-related disorders are listed in the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual providers use to diagnose mental illness. Below are a few of the most commonly diagnosed.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized anxiety disorder can include symptoms of persistent worry, anxiety, or fear about multiple aspects of your life. Symptoms often interfere with multiple areas, including school, work, relationships, and self-care.
Panic disorder involves sudden, overwhelming periods of fear and anxiety called panic attacks, lasting several minutes to about an hour at most. While some people may experience a panic attack which lasts longer than this, it is extremely rare.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder involves severe fear, anxiety, or worry related to rejection, humiliation, and judgment in social and performance-related situations. It may cause difficulty speaking, leaving home, or connecting with others. Some people with social anxiety disorder also experience a stutter, shakiness, or other distressing symptoms in their personal life.
Specific phobias involve intense reactions of fear and aversion in response to a specific feared object, circumstance, animal, person, or place, which may or may not involve actual danger.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety disorder involves stress reactions when separated from the people with whom you've formed emotional attachments, often with nightmares of being parted from loved ones and aversion to being alone.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was previously classified as an anxiety disorder in the DSM-4 but is considered a trauma and stressor-related disorder in the DSM-5. It can involve persistent symptoms of fear, avoidance, and distress months or years after a traumatic event. You may have flashbacks (unwanted vivid memories), nightmares, or unexpected triggers related to your trauma.
Acute Stress Disorder
Acute stress disorder (AST) involves responses to acute or episodic acute stress similar to PTSD with a shorter symptom duration or without the criteria for PTSD. Witnessing or being involved in traumatic events such as a natural disaster, sexual assault, serious accidents, or the sudden death of a loved one are some examples in which someone may develop acute stress disorder.
Adjustment disorder can involve short-term difficulties adjusting to stressors with an identifiable cause. This mental health condition often relates to situational stressors and may fade as you adapt to the changes in your life.
Coping Skills For Stress And Anxiety
Below are a few standard coping techniques that can be effective for anxiety and stress:
- Identifying your anxiety and stress causes
- Evaluating the situation to determine if your reaction suits the circumstances
- Challenging anxious and stressed thoughts
- Balancing fear with positive thinking
- Practicing deep breathing and relaxation techniques to reduce stress
- Seeking social support, possibly through support groups for people who are also experiencing stress and anxiety
- Reaching out for professional support if your symptoms interfere with your ability to function in daily life
Treatments For Anxiety And Stress
The most common treatments for anxiety and stress-related disorders include medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two approaches to relive stress and anxiety. A recent study shows that the combination of talk therapy and medication can be most effective for many. However, therapy can also be effective on its own.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is one of the most popular therapeutic modalities for treating anxiety disorders and managing stress. In CBT, you can learn how to identify harmful thought patterns and behaviors with a licensed therapist's professional support and guidance. CBT therapists may also offer worksheets, coping strategies, and activities you can practice to take what you learn home with you after therapy.
Self-care techniques are the habits you develop to meet your physical, mental, and emotional needs. You may struggle to care for others if you don't care for yourself, so self-care is one way to ensure you are well enough to care for yourself and those you love.
To activate your body's relaxation response—a state of "slower breathing, lower blood pressure, and a reduced heart rate"— you may try belly breathing, take up an exercise routine, and practice mindfulness meditation. Taking deep breaths with your diaphragm when you feel stress is a simple yet effective way to manage stress. It is also effective if you feel anxious.
Mindfulness practices have also been found helpful to lower stress levels. By focusing your attention on the present moment, on bodily sensations, and anchoring your attention on the breath, mindfulness can lower stress. Along with stress relief, mindfulness may also help improve mood.
Below are a few ways to practice self-care in your daily life:
- Find ways to enjoy the sensory sensations around you. Many people benefit from focusing on the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and touches in their environment.
- Maintain a healthy diet, regular sleep schedule, and routine physical activity. Physical activity may also help improve sleep.
- Keep a journal to keep track of your emotions and how you cope throughout your week.
- Avoid substance use. *
- Practice mindfulness with meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga to improve focus and discipline.
- Use positive affirmations to reassure yourself.
- Establish an evolving repertoire of coping skills. One of which is tapping for anxiety, a simple technique that some people may find helpful in decreasing anxiety symptoms at the moment.
- Focus on positive thinking.
*If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
Counseling Options For Stress And Anxiety
If you're struggling to manage your reactions to stress and anxiety to the point that they interfere with your ability to function, consider working with a licensed therapist. Therapy can help you discuss the causes behind your anxiety and stress, beneficial coping techniques to try, and your goals for treatment.
If you or a family struggles with social anxiety or cannot get entry to in-person therapy due to a barrier like a cost or location, you can also talk to a therapist through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. Fitting therapy into your busy schedule can be possible with flexible appointment formats offered by online counselors. A qualified therapist can help you learn healthy, practical ways to cope with stress and anxiety while learning to recognize and process your emotions effectively.
According to a recent study, online cognitive-behavioral therapy is as effective as in-person treatments—and in some cases, more effective. Many online CBT patients in the study found that the convenience of receiving treatment at home made it possible to participate in more sessions. Participants also found it easier to give personal details with a therapist due to the added physical distance of teletherapy.
Many people face challenges with controlling their emotional reactions to stress and anxiety. Understanding the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of stress and anxiety and how therapy can help you find healthy ways to cope with your symptoms may help you find relief. Consider reaching out to a therapist or professional counselor to get started on developing a treatment plan unique to your needs.
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