Coping With Stress And Anxiety

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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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 stress in their everyday life. According to studies from the Center for Disease Control, stress accounts for a significant number of doctor visits. 

However, if stress starts to impact your daily functioning negatively, they may be a sign of an underlying mental health concern. Understanding how to cope with stress and anxiety in a healthy way can be valuable in these cases. 

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Stress and anxiety don't need to take over your life

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. While anxiety is usually persistent, stress 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 disorders where symptoms linger and worsen over time. Stress and anxiety can lead to emotional challenges, such as unmanaged anger, nervousness, and worry. The mental health concerns associated with stress can make it difficult to complete daily activities. 

Constantly feeling stressed can also put one at a higher risk of developing a serious illness, such as heart disease. According to the National Institute of Mental Health’s fact sheet on stress and anxiety, frequent stressful experiences can also cause anxiety.

Often, stress means strain and 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. Psychological stress, like fear, can trigger your body's fight or flight response to perceived danger. 

Below are a few types of stress:
  • 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 and a difficult job. Chronic stress can also result from adverse childhood and/or adult experiences.

  • Episodic Acute Stress: Episodic stress can feel like a way of life. You may habitually react to stressors a certain way, creating 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.

Many people experiencing anxiety disorders perceive that they are constantly facing danger, leaving their bodies "stuck" in fight or flight mode. One of the qualifiers for these disorders is a disruption in functional abilities. If these feelings interfere with your capacity to perform in many areas of your life, such as school, work, and interpersonal relationships, they may qualify as a disorder.  

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.

Digestive symptoms

Many people experiencing chronic stress face gastrointestinal symptoms, such as stomachaches, gas, acid reflux, and/or diarrhea. If you are experiencing these concerns, eating healthy meals, watching your caffeine intake, and using coping strategies may reduce symptoms.  

Immune challenges

Chronic stress may damage your immune system, making catching colds and other infections easier. Physical health concerns can, in turn, worsen anxiety and stress. 

Nervous system concerns

Long-term stress can affect your brain and nervous system. It may also lead to mental health conditions like depression, as well as insomnia, memory, and decision-making challenges. 

Cardiovascular concerns

People experiencing chronic stress may see 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) and other cardiovascular health concerns, consult your doctor for guidance.

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Symptoms of anxiety disorders and stress

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 experiencing anxiety disorders when a stressor is absent.

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder

Below are common symptoms of 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 and making decisions, difficulty controlling worry, a sense of impending doom

  • Behavioral: Actively avoiding places, people, and situations that may cause stress, changes in sleep patterns, shifts in eating habits

Symptoms of chronic stress

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: Restlessness, lack of motivation, trouble focusing, feeling overwhelmed, irritability, sadness, and depression

  • Behavioral: Overeating or undereating, out-of-character outbursts, substance use, social withdrawal, decrease in physical activity, which can also increase stress

DSM-5 mental health conditions

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 mental health disorders that are characterized by symptoms of anxiety or stress.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD can include symptoms of persistent worry and fear about multiple aspects of your life. Symptoms often affect multiple areas of life, including school, work, relationships, and self-care.

Panic disorder

Panic disorder involves sudden, overwhelming periods of fear 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 and 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 may also experience a stutter, shakiness, or other distressing symptoms in their personal life.

Specific phobias

Specific phobias involve intense reactions of fear and aversion in response to a specific feared object, circumstance, animal, person, and place, which may or may not involve actual danger.

Separation anxiety disorder

This disorder involves stress reactions when separated from the people whom you've formed emotional attachments to, 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

Frequently occurring in children and teens, 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.

How to cope with stress and anxiety

Below are a few standard stress and anxiety management techniques that can be effective:

  • Identifying the causes behind your feelings

  • 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 peer support, possibly through a friend, family member, or support group for people who are experiencing a similar challenge

  • Reaching out for professional support if your symptoms interrupt your ability to function in daily life

Treatments to help with stress-related disorders

The most common treatments for anxiety and stress-related disorders include medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two approaches. A recent study shows that the combination of talk therapy and medication can be most effective health care for many experiencing anxiety. However, therapy can also be effective on its own. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) 

CBT is one of the most popular therapeutic modalities for helping to manage anxiety and stress. In CBT, you can learn how to identify harmful thought patterns and behaviors with a licensed therapist's professional support and guidance. A mental health professional utilizing CBT may also offer worksheets, coping strategies, and activities you can practice to take what you learn home with you after therapy.

Self-care

Care tasks, which are often neglected when we experience emotional challenges, can help relieve stress and anxiety. 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 others. 

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 through your diaphragm when you feel stress is a simple yet effective way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us calm down during stressful times. 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 tips for practicing 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 make a big difference in the quality of your sleep. 

  • Keep a journal to keep track of your emotions and how you cope throughout your week.

  • Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and similar substances.

  • Practice mindfulness through meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga to improve focus and discipline.

  • Connect with friends, relatives, and other members of your support network frequently. 

  • 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 symptoms at the moment.

  • Focus on positive thinking.

If you’d like to do more research on stress and anxiety, you can find several informational resources on the National Institute of Mental Health’s website. 

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Stress and anxiety don't need to take over your life

Connecting with a mental health professional online

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 potential causes, 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 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. 

Takeaway

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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