Difference between stress and anxiety

Almost everyone knows what stress feels like. Tense shoulders, brain working in overdrive, mood swings, feeling overloaded. But what's the difference between stress and anxiety, and when is it time to seek help?

What  is anxiety?

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. One in every three women and one in every five men will experience anxiety at some point in their lives. Anxious feelings are quite normal, but there’s a difference between a normal level of feeling anxious, and what's known in the medical world as 'pathological anxiety,' or 'generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)'. 

Bupa’s National Medical Director Tim Ross says a normal amount of anxiety is one that you feel you can manage, and one which goes away once the stressful situation has passed. But the point at which anxiety becomes a medical condition is when it starts to impact the way you would normally perform, or cope with, ordinary tasks. 
“Pathological anxiety is where you cease being able to function in a normal way. So it affects your sleep, it affects your ability to work, it affects your relationships at home in that you don’t perform at a level that is expected to be normal.”
This can have a range of symptoms including panic attacks, hot and cold flushes, racing heart, tight chest, restlessness, excessive fear or worry, obsessive thinking, and avoiding everyday situations because you worry they might make you anxious. 
“A panic attack is a loss of feeling of control of yourself,” Dr Ross said. “You feel you can’t control your mind and you can’t control your body. People pretty much freeze with a panic attack because they feel like they’re going to pass out, like they’re going to die, they’re going to wet themselves, things like that.”

While anyone can suffer a panic attack, Dr Ross says if they’re happening regularly, it’s a cause for concern. 

“You might have an underlying level of anxiety about something, but then some trigger will then push it to a panic attack. So for people who are quite unwell, panic attacks can be common.” 
man looking out window with no top on

Difference between stress and anxiety? 

Stress and anxious feelings are a common response to high-pressure situations, but then they usually pass once the cause of the stress is removed. That might be a difficult project being completed, a challenging presentation being over, or test results being received. If you find these feelings of being anxious or worried stick around for no real reason afterwards, it could be more than just everyday stress. Everyone feels anxious from time to time, but someone experiencing anxiety can’t easily control these feelings and may not always know what they’re anxious about. 

Dr Ross says there are a number of key triggers to look out for which may suggest it’s time to get help. 

“Do you find that your quality of work is suffering? Do you find that you’re not maintaining relationships in a way that you normally would? For example, do you find that you’re being negative towards your partner and your children or the people who are normally your best supports? Is your sleep affected, and is it affecting your ability to eat or to exercise?”

If so, it’s worth speaking to a health professional about the different options and ways to cope and recover. 

Anxiety and depression 

Dr Ross says many people experiencing anxiety will also experience depression

“When it comes to anxiety and depression, you tend to find one goes with the other, being anxious will often make you depressed because you start feeling negatively about the world and you withdraw, and vice versa. When you’re depressed and feel very low you start getting anxious about the fact that you’re not coping with life.”
He says it’s important to remember there are many different ways of managing and overcoming both anxiety and depression.
“I have say to some patients, ‘Look, I know you can’t see yourself in a place where you will be happy or motivated again, but I can tell you as your doctor that we will get you there’.”

Bupa Medical

You can discuss any mental health issues with our GPs who can provide or help you find the care you need.

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What do I do if I need help?

The sooner people get help for anxiety or depression, the easier it is to recover.

It’s important to know there are many different options if you know where to look.

The best person to speak to will depend on who you feel the most comfortable with, but a good place to start is with your GP. He or she may be able to help you directly, or refer you to a specialist.
If you know a good psychologist who you trust, that’s also a great place to start.
Young people between 12 and 25 years old might find headspace helpful. You can speak to someone confidentially online, over the phone, or you can walk into one of their centres and speak to someone in person.
Mindspot also offers a free telephone and online service for adults of all ages.
You can find out more about anxiety and depression at the beyondblue website, and if you need to speak to someone urgently you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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