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When feeling stressed, you may also feel anxious, and this leads some people to believe they may have an anxiety disorder. From the outset, it can be difficult to spot the difference as many of the physical symptoms are the same, like heart palpitations, sweating, insomnia and headaches. To make a diagnosis even more complex, prolonged stress can lead to anxiety and depressed, which is why it is so important to learn how to manage stress.

The key difference between stress and anxiety is the period of time in which symptoms are felt. Stress is a normal inbuilt response to a threat, also known as ‘the fight or flight response’ and without it, our race would not have survived. However, for some, stress is not helpful in making that deadline or responding to demands, but instead causes physical decay and emotional distress. And although stress may induce feelings of anxiety, this is different to a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

An anxiety disorder is defined when anxiety is persistent, out of proportion to reality and significantly interferes with a person’s daily life. An anxiety disorder can be typically accompanied by intense uncontrollable worry, avoidance of real or perceived anxiety provoking situations and panic attacks. Speaking to a psychologist may help you deal with anxiety by equipping you with strategies to manage the symptoms and keep panic attacks under control.

Anxiety can be caused by a number of things that present as risk factors contributing to the development of an anxiety condition. Such factors include a genetic predisposition, stress and lifestyle, chronic health conditions, substance abuse and mental health conditions just to name a few. So although there are some key differences between stress and anxiety disorders, the two things are linked and that is why it is so important to not let stress get out of hand.

Symptoms of Stress

Recognising stress can be a challenge because it often manifests before we have had a chance to put a lid on it.  How each of us experience stress varies considerably, with some people becoming irritable and others losing sleep. Stress is typically recognised across four main areas: Physical, Thinking, Feeling and Behaviours. It is important to learn your unique stress symptoms so you can get on top of it, before it gets the better of you.

Here is a table which may help:

Physical Thinking Feeling Behaviour
Headaches Forgetfulness Irritable Difficulty sleeping
Muscle stiffness Difficulty concentrating Hopeless Procrastinating
Tight chest “I can’t do this…it’s too much” Numb Increased smoking/alcohol use
Nausea “I don’t have time” On edge Clenching jaw
Weight gain/loss “I should be able to sort this out” Stressed Snapping at people
Tiredness “Do I have to do everything around here?” Desperate Staying in bed
Skin conditions “I don’t want to talk to anyone” Vulnerable Avoiding people


Coping with Stress

There are a number of things that can reduce life stress. Learning how to respond differently to stressful situations, taking time to relax, adding some physical activity and eating well, breathing techniques and actually having some fun are helpful strategies.

Other strategies include time management and improving communication skills.
If you think you may need additional help to manage life stress, ask your GP about a Mental Health Care Plan and referral to a psychologist. This provides a Medicare rebate for psychological treatment. Alternatively, you can make an appointment directly with Psychology Consultants as a private client.