Anxiety: Why It’s Different Than Stress

Ask any 10 people on the street whether or not they feel stressed and chances are very good you’ll get the same answer 10 times over—a resounding “YES!” You may well be one of those folks, feeling pulled in a lot of different directions by work, family, friends and other responsibilities, with a lot to get done in what seems like too little time.

It’s reassuring to know that we were built to handle quite a bit of stress (think: our innate “flight or fight” response when we feel threatened). Still, feeling tense can seem like such a normal part of life that we may not be tuned into exactly how our minds and bodies are being affected by chronic stress—including when that stress has morphed into serious anxiety.

Stress and anxiety may seem like interchangeable terms, but each has important nuances. It’s natural to worry or feel pressured when, say, you’ve got a big project at work, or a loved one is dealing with a serious health issue. But when that unsettled feeling creeps into all the corners of your life and stays there over weeks, months or even longer, that stress has now become something more.

“Anxiety is one form of response that the body has to stress,” explains Stephen Brewer, M.D., medical director of Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “You can have a migraine as a response to stress, or be fatigued or depressed—or you can be anxious.” It’s worth paying attention to: “If you’re so anxious that you’re not eating well, you’re forgetting things, you’re not a safe driver or an effective parent, and it’s affecting what you do every day, that’s the tipping point,” says Dr. Brewer.

About 40 million American adults are dealing with an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. If you usually feel keyed-up and worried and your anxiety is hard to control and negatively affects your daily life, you may have an anxiety disorder. Hopefully it’s reassuring to hear that there’s no reason you have to continue living this way. “People who are anxious often don’t fully appreciate what’s at the root of their chronic worry or rumination, or feel confident that they can do anything about it to make things better,” says Dr. Brewer. “But once you effectively treat anxiety, you should find that your daily life is dramatically improved—that you can focus and you’re better able to take care of tasks at home, at work and with your family. Pretty much all daily activities can be affected by uncontrolled anxiety.”

Your overall health will get a boost from getting help, too. You may already know that unchecked stress, on its own, can lead to a host of physical problems, from elevated cholesterol and chest pains to headaches, back pain and trouble sleeping. Having an anxiety disorder also raises the likelihood that you will be depressed (and vice versa); nearly half of people with depression also have a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

If it turns out you do have an anxiety disorder, there’s a variety of options that can help you feel calmer and more in control. “I tell people that one way to distance themselves from an anxiety-provoking situation is to meditate,” says Dr. Brewer. “About 95 percent of the time, we are typically not in an anxiety-provoking situation where we’re feeling  ‘attacked’ in some way, so meditation can teach you to bring yourself back to the present and a place of calm.” Regular exercise, good-quality sleep, cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, acupuncture and healing touch can also be effective in helping you worry less, he adds. “We always suggest an integrative approach at Canyon Ranch.”

Anti-anxiety medication is an important part of a treatment plan for those who need it. “We generally shy away from medication as our first choice, but there are times when it’s helpful,” says Dr. Brewer. “There are people who have chronic anxiety disorders who don’t have any idea why they’re anxious and they can’t control what it is in their biology that makes them more anxious—that’s just what their make-up is.” Medication can “calm things down a little bit,” he adds, noting that it’s very helpful to have some form of medication for those circumstances in which anxiety can’t be controlled by making lifestyle changes, especially in people with a strong family history of anxiety or related disorders, like depression. “It’s no different than treating someone with a family history of high blood pressure,” notes Dr. Brewer.

Taking a drug doesn’t mean you’ll be on it forever, either. Medication can be used short-term and intermittently, perhaps to help you get through a cross-country move or an especially overwhelming period at work, for example.

While stress will probably always be part of modern life, if you’re feeling anxious most or all of the time—and especially if it’s hurting your ability to thrive in your life and do all the things you enjoy most—that’s not normal, and it’s time to delve deeper. A great first step: Talk to your doctor to get to the bottom of what’s worrying you so you can feel better sooner.

More: The Shades of Depression

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