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What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

Although stress and anxiety often come hand in hand they are actually different and should not be treated the same especially within the workplace. We see a lot of people with or being told they have anxiety in the workplace which in fact is being misdiagnosed and is in fact stress.

What is the difference between Stress and Anxiety?

Stress is usually a response to an external cause such as a tight deadline or a heavy workload. It is a natural response to a situation your brain begins to produce the Cortisol hormone placing your body in “fight or flight” mode, your heart begins to pump faster, and you may begin to sweat. You can also feel nervous, angry, or frustrated!

Stress is not always as bad thing as it can also motivate you to finish tasks, concentrate on goals and drive peak performance. Overwhelming stress or chronic stress are not good for you mentally or physically and if you experience these for prolonged periods it can cause depression, difficulty sleeping, burnout, digestive issues and even heart disease!

Anxiety is more to do with the person's internal feelings normally a reaction to a stressor. It is a feeling of fear, apprehension, worry or nervousness. Some anxiety is normal for example before doing completing a test minor anxiety is expected. Anxiety can become out of control and start to impact day to day life this can cause both emotional, mental, and physical health problems.

When it comes to excess anxiety or anxiety disorders the feeling is out of proportion to the actual stressor, real or imagined “threat”. The threat they feel may seem over exaggerated or unbelievable for example someone may feel that if they see a dog, it could bite them, and they could die. People without that anxiety may be able to rationalise and say well the dog is very unlikely to bite you and even if it did it is very unlikely that would kill you. When you are the person feeling the anxiety, it is often hard to see things rationally or from someone else’s point of view.

It is always important to monitor your stress levels as there is a fine line between ordinary workplace stress and overwhelm leading to burnout and breakdowns. The Yerkes-Dodson Law is a great example of how to monitor stress levels. It focuses on the relationship between pressure and performance, with a great visual reminder to monitor yourself against

Some tips to coping with stress and not allowing it to go too far:

  • Take breaks from your work - Even just a quick 5 minute break to get up and away from your desk.

  • Take care of your body - Eating healthy and exercising regularly can help you focus and clear your mind. Looking after yourself physically has been proven to help your mind.

  • Make time to unwind - Taking time to look after yourself and relax your mind is very important. Work/Life balance is spoken about all the time and it is crucial to a good mental headspace.

  • Talk to others - It's sometimes hard to articulate your feelings to others and it can be scary to be venerable but most people will be able to relate when it comes to stress as most people have been stressed at work in their lifetime! As the saying goes "a problem shared is a problem halved".

  • Recognise when your stress is becoming overwhelming and ask for help - You need to get to know yourself and learn to identify your "tells and triggers". In a car you have warning lights that will let you know when something is wrong and needs fixing, as humans we also have internal warning systems but we sometimes ignore them and carry on. Try to identify them and keep an eye out for them next time so that you can put things in place to stop the stress hitting dangerous levels.

Coping with anxiety is a little different as there is a wide spectrum of reasons behind it and reactions to it but some tips i would give are

  • Question your thought process - Take a moment to try and think about whether your anxious thought is rational. Try and dissect the feeling, what was the trigger? Try and attach logic to the feeling.

  • Practice deep breathing and mindfulness - There is a simple mindfulness exercise that I use very often I have posted it below. If you suffer from anxiety I would always recommend learning more about mindfulness as it have really helped me and others I know, focussing your mind and being in the present moment are amazing.

  • Take a break or a walk - Take yourself out of the situation for a few minutes concentrate on your steps and try and clear your mind.

  • Write down your thoughts it may help you process them - Journaling is very popular and it really seems to help with anxiety by getting things out of your mind and onto paper it makes space and calms the anxious feeling. Well it works for me anyway!

  • Seek help - Always ask for help. Whether that be from a friend, colleague or a professional please never be afraid to ask for help.

The main thing to remember is that both stress and anxiety can be perfectly normal and healthy in small doses but it is always important to monitor both and recognise when you are reaching your limits and put things into place to protect your mental health and wellbeing.


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