I recently wrote a piece on stress identifying 25 symptoms. They are all also symptoms of anxiety! So, what’s the difference?

Whether we feel overwhelmed, take things personally, beat ourselves up when something goes wrong, or worry and fret, it’s all the one system that creates these symptoms. Why we create them is where the difference lies.

Anxiety is that function in the brain that looks for something to worry about and makes a bigger feeling out of it than needed. It activates the mind/body stress systems as the way to create attention and push behaviour. Those same systems can be activated by work pressures, relationship issues, too much going on in life, and similar ‘stressors’ without anxiety being present, but the same systems of body and mind are activated in both situations.

Here are those symptoms I mentioned, at the end I’ll give a few tips on now to distinguish if it might be stress or anxiety that is at the root of them:

1. Feeling overwhelmed – Often like there’s no point to trying because there’s too much to do.

2. Feeling frustrated & Irritable. Snapping at colleagues or family, exploding into anger.

3. Tension or pain in head, back, and shoulders. Sometimes dizzy spells, sharp pain, or constant tension.

4. Difficulty concentrating. Easily distracted, flipping between things, hard to stay on task.

5. Low confidence. Feeling unsure of self, particularly in situations involving people.

6. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Pain, frequent bathroom visits, constipation, churning, or bloating.

7. Second guessing self. Decisions becomes harder, take longer to make, & poor follow through.

8. Over-analysing things. We go back over things a lot, re-examining them, and get slowed down.

9. Heartburn. Getting more acid reflux is quite common.

10. Lower Immune System. We catch more colds & infections and take longer to get over them.

11. Palpatations, rapid pulse, chest pain. Can also make catching our breath harder.

12. Diminished Libido. Sexual interest can drop, creating relationship problems.

13. Change in appetite. Can lose interest in food or fall into comfort eating when not hungry.

14. Feelings of Panic. Perhaps even ‘heart attack’ like panic attacks and overwhelming dread.

15. Poor sleep. Taking a long time to fall asleep, early waking, or interrupted sleep can occur.

16. Sweating or blushing. When under pressure we are more likely to react physically.

17. Mouth going dry, difficulty speaking. Feeling ‘on the spot’ can bring these on more easily.

18. More worry and anxiety. Feeling nervous, being twitchy, tapping feet etc. to relieve tension.

19. Poor concentration. Difficulty learning new things, staying focussed in a meeting, confusion, etc.

20. Depression. Feeling down, feeling worthless, feeling undervalued, & low self esteem can occur.

21. Defensive and suspicious feelings making the workplace harder. More conflict & arguments.

22. Isolation. Avoiding people and social events, feeling unable to face colleagues.

23. Constant tiredness. Low energy, fatigue, exhaustion, dragging self through the day.

24. Far less productivity. A decline in getting things done/finished often accompanies stress.

25. Dreading work. Spend Sunday nights being a ball of worry about Monday morning and so on.

We won’t all have this many symptoms and we will all have different signs of stress/anxiety but the above are some of the most common ones.

The big difference between anxiety (the mind always on alert looking for something to worry about) and stress, are the presence of obvious causes.

We are great at ignoring signs that we’re getting wound-up or feeling off, but when we do notice them, we can look at when they started and this tells us a lot.

At the beginning was there any obvious extra pressure in life? Was there a lot of stress at work? Was there a breakup? An ill family member? Something else that put a lot of strain on things?

If so, the odds are more likely that stress is the cause of the symptoms rather than anxiety.

There’s always the possibility of both, but here’s what anxiety more often looks like:

Typically signs such as being shy as a kid, having memories of worry a lot as a kid, and then any of the above symptoms that seem to have ‘always’ been there, are good indications that anxiety might be the root cause.

A long period of overwhelm does seem able to create an anxiety reaction that can run by itself, as can severe trauma, but it’s more common for us to have been ‘worriers’ as long as we can remember.

The function of both issues is to set us on edge, make us alert, and push our behaviour in a way that makes us avoid whatever is causing the bad feeling. If we are being chased by a bear, these are useful feelings, but in day to day life they just hold us back.

There is a lot you can do to reduce the feelings in both cases. Being aware of what is happening is a vital first step. From there it’s easier to find solutions. Mindfulness, Yoga, Therapy, and more can all help, but do something if you are feeling bad. It makes a huge difference in life to get control over anxiety and stress.

Wishing you a great week,

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John Prendergast Anxiety & Psycho-Trauma Therapist's photo.