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Is it Stress or is it Anxiety? And, does it matter?

Do you believe this, it’s normal to feel stress. Life is stressful. Everyone feels stressed from time to time.

I didn’t.

Up until I was an adult, I always thought there was something wrong with me for being “emotional.” It started early. My big brothers were so . . . composed, put together, centered, unruffled, poised. Every time something bothered me and I felt rattled I suppressed it because if I brought it up they made fun of me for “being a baby” or just rolled their eyes and dismissed me. I wanted attention from them to help me feel connected. They were so much older and I felt lonely. But I wasn’t going to get them to spend time with me by telling them about things that I found disturbing. And, my mother [forget about my father] was so busy that I only saw her late at night when I got a hug before going to bed . . . sometimes. Her life was important. She was making a living, providing for the family. It wasn’t right to bother her with my little emotional boo boos.

By the time I was 13 I knew I had to study psychology.

Stress is normal. It’s actually a good thing. There are so many daily stressors and challenges that put us under temporary siege. Our bodies react by preparing to deal with the test, to face the threat, to fight or flee to safety in a high level focused readiness.

That’s why we feel so many signals. Your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, and your brain uses more oxygen and increases pinpointed attention and activity. These are all functions aimed at survival. Everyday stress is normal and needed to motivate you for a test, an interview, an audition. If there’s a physical threat it gives you the energy to get out of there or defend yourself.

Did you ever feel energy surge into your arms when you thought you might have to fight? Or someone made you so angry that you wanted to strike out? That’s part of stress’s self defense mechanism. It gives you the resources to fight if you decide you need to. Or you can choose another alternative, like walking away.

Routine, daily stressors are very recognizable:

Pressure from school, work, home.


Preparing for a talk or presentation

Family, friend, significant other disagreements

More draining stress can be brought on by a sudden negative change, such as losing a job, divorce, or an illness.

Traumatic stress may be experienced after a major accident, war, assault, or some other disaster where there is the possibility of serious harm. People who experience traumatic stress may have very distressing temporary emotional and physical symptoms, but most recover naturally soon after.

A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time. Long term stress does wear on us, so it’s a good idea to find tactics to deal with the physical and emotional effects when it’s recurring.

Experiencing chronic stress can develop chronic physical symptoms because the body never gets the “all clear” signal that it’s safe to return to normal.

The same lifesaving responses under temporary stress are more disturbing when they become chronic. People suffer headaches, palpitations and experience a general sense of anxiety. All of our systems are then at risk; the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems.


Stress prepares us for action. Anxiety is experienced when you think you can’t handle the pressure or strain. It’s an exaggerated sense of worry and fear we feel out of control.

There’s a difference between Anxiety and stress. Unlike stress, Anxiety doesn’t fade into the distance once the threat is mediated. Anxiety hangs around for the long haul, and can stop you from interacting in your work or social spheres. It’s a conditioned response to potential threats that stops us from reacting with consideration. The same things that provoke a normal stress reaction that’s useful become triggers to excessive worry and fear that persist. It’s hard to focus, to concentrate and fear is manifested in physical symptoms that are hard to control – like excessive sweating, rapid heart rate, headaches, stomachaches, crying, feelings of anger.

As with stress, everyone feels anxious from time to time. Here are some common signs of anxiety:

Difficulty controlling worry

Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge

Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank


Difficulty Sleeping

Exaggerated startle response

Headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, pins and needles

Shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, chest pain

Here’s the good news! There are effective ways to manage stress and anxiety.

When you cope with stress you ward off and heal anxiety reactions.

What works best? It’s a matter of trial and error. Different approaches work better for different people.

I’ve found the best thing for me is to MOVE. Exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your brain that help you feel more relaxed and think more clearly. It’s hard to be anxious or depressed when you’re moving, walking, running, lifting weights, going up and down stairs, or my favorite – dancing.

If you’re new to exercise, start with walking 10 – 15 minutes. If you do it in the morning, it will make the day go more smoothly. And you can repeat it later in the day – at lunch, in the evening. When I’ve been particularly stressed or anxious I’ve walked for an hour or longer first thing in the morning. Made a huge difference in my stress level as well as giving me a sense of control and accomplishment

Keep a journal: Give yourself 10 – 30 minutes a day to write down whatever comes to mind. You don’t have to look at it ever again. Just write. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel day after day.

Be creative: Sing, color, draw, write poetry, or just throw some paint on a surface, just not your ex’s door.] Engaging in a creative hobby gives your mind a chance to unwind and get excited about something other than the stressor.

Listening to slow, relaxing music decreases your stress response (just as fast-paced music pumps you up for a run.)

Deep breathing works for many people, but not all, that’s why I’m mentioning it last. Try it and if it heightens your anxiety instead of relaxing you, do something else. If you’d like to try it . . .Inhale for a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for four. Repeat.

When to Seek Help

If you have difficulty managing stress and/or anxiety; if you feel your ability to function is being compromised and it ‘s too hard to carry out your normal daily activities (like getting to work on time, meeting deadlines, communicating well with others), talk therapy can help. It helps you identify your triggers and responses and find interventions and strategies that will relieve the stress and help you get back on

To wrap up. When stress no longer feels manageable and symptoms of anxiety interfere with your daily living, there is help. Consider talking to someone about it. Individual and group approaches work well. It’s a matter of personal preference.

This is such a common issue with lots of solutions and support from great people. So don’t worry. Try some of the approaches mentioned here on your own or with a coach or therapist. You WILL feel better.

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