Are You Worried, Stressed or Anxious? What is the Difference?

Posted on March 11th 2020 by Laura Armstrong

Your heart is racing, palms are sweating and your breathing is shallow. You are anxious.

Or are you stressed? Worried even?

If you find it hard to distinguish between stress, worry, and anxiety, you are not alone.

With symptoms that overlap, knowing which one you are experiencing at any given time can be tricky, but there are subtle differences.

Read our guide to the differences between anxiety, stress, and worry to see which one you are experiencing and what you can do to overcome it.

Is it worry?

Worry is the thoughts, emotions, and actions driven by negative thinking.

Some people worry about everything. You can probably identify people in your life who are constant worriers. They appear to be the eternal pessimist – always expecting or preparing for the worst.

Most of us worry from time to time but when it becomes chronic, worry can interfere with your daily life. The pattern of negative thoughts can become an uncontrollable cycle which escalates into irrational fears if left unchecked.

How to stop worrying

If you find yourself fixated on a problem, do not let your worries get the better of you.

With over thirty years of experience, award-winning therapist, Marisa Peer, reminds us that something is “only a problem if you make it a problem.” Marisa advises considering The Three Ps to get perspective on a problem.

It must be permanent – it never goes away
It must be all-pervasive – occurring at all times, every minute of the day
It must be personal
Asking yourself these questions will enable you to feel empowered and help you feel in control of the situation.

Is it stress?

While worry is caused by our internal thoughts, stress is a reaction to external pressures. Examples of stress triggers include moving house, going through a divorce, becoming a parent or an important interview.

Stress has an impact on both the mind and the body.

What happens when we are stressed?

Stress is not just in your head, it is in your body. 77% of people report experiencing stress that affects their physical health.

Symptoms can include:

Difficulty sleeping
Muscle tension
Clenched jaw
Chest pains
Digestive problems
Shallow breathing
When the cause is external, we can feel at a loss as to how to overcome it. However, you have the power to deal with stress as this article demonstrates.

When we are stressed, we trigger our sympathetic nervous system. This means we are constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode. To free yourself from the effects of stress, you need to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system – this is where healing and renewal occur.

Make time for calming activities, which slow your heart rate, like meditation or listening to soothing music.

You can free yourself from stress.

Listening to a guided meditation or hypnosis audio can help you feel calm both in the moment and long-term by providing you with practical, empowering techniques to manage stress.

What is anxiety?

While stress is caused in response to external factors, anxiety is characterized as a “persistent feeling of apprehension or dread” in a situation where there is no threat.

If you hate your job and you are stressed, once you quit, the symptoms of stress will go away on their own. However, anxiety lingers after the problem has been resolved.

With anxiety, you will envisage a threat where there is none. Reading too much into an email from a colleague and fearing that your job is at risk is anxiety. The threat is imagined but feels very real to you.

Anxious feelings can manifest into an anxiety disorder which has a significant impact on your day-to-day life and wellbeing. Anxiety disorders include panic disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and social phobia. Find out more about different anxiety disorders.

How to overcome anxiety

You do not have to live with anxiety. You can rewire your mind to think and respond differently to the situations which cause you to feel anxious.

It does not need to be a complicated process either. Marisa Peer has created a highly-effective hypnosis audio to enable you to overcome anxiety and lead a life free from racing thoughts.

How chronic stress changes the brain – and what you can do to reverse the damage

Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian, Christelle Langley, Muzaffer Kaser, University of Cambridge

March 11, 2020 3.13pm GMT
A bit of stress is a normal part of our daily lives, which can even be good for us. Overcoming stressful events can make us more resilient. But when the stress is severe or chronic – for example caused by the breakdown of a marriage or partnership, death in the family or bullying – it needs to be dealt with immediately.

That’s because repeated stress can have a huge impact on our brain, putting us at risk of a number of physical and psychological problems.

Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by a blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain.

The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect brain systems linked to motivation and mental agility.

There is also evidence of chronic stress effects on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles.

Mood, cognition and behaviour

It is well established that chronic stress can lead to depression, which is a leading cause of disability worldwide. It is also a recurrent condition – people who have experienced depression are at risk for future bouts of depression, particularly under stress.

There are many reasons for this, and they can be linked to changes in the brain. The reduced hippocampus that a persistent exposure to stress hormones and ongoing inflammation can cause is more commonly seen in depressed patients than in healthy people.

Chronic stress ultimately also changes the chemicals in the brain which modulate cognition and mood, including serotonin. Serotonin is important for mood regulation and wellbeing. In fact, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are used to restore the functional activity of serotonin in the brain in people with depression.

Sleep and circadian rhythm disruption is a common feature in many psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, play a key modulatory role in sleep. Elevated cortisol levels can therefore interfere with our sleep. The restoration of sleep patterns and circadian rhythms may therefore provide a treatment approach for these conditions.

Depression can have huge consequences. Our own work has demonstrated that depression impairs cognition in both non-emotional domains, such as planning and problem-solving, and emotional and social areas, such as creating attentional bias to negative information.

Burning out? Be careful. Andrey_Popov
In addition to depression and anxiety, chronic stress and its impact at work can lead to burnout symptoms, which are also linked to increased frequency of cognitive failures in daily life. As individuals are required to take on increased workload at work or school, it may lead to reduced feelings of achievement and increased susceptibility to anxiety, creating a vicious cycle.

Stress can also interfere with our balance between rational thinking and emotions. For example, the stressful news about the global spread of the novel Coronavirus has caused people to hoard hand sanitisers, tissues and toilet paper. Shops are becoming empty of these supplies, despite reassurance by the government that there is plenty of stock available.

This is because stress may force the brain to switch to a “habit system”. Under stress, brain areas such as the putamen, a round structure at the base of the forebrain, show greater activation. Such activation has been associated with hoarding behaviour. In addition, in stressful situations, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in emotional cognition – such as evaluation of social affiliations and learning about fear – may enhance irrational fears. Eventually, these fears essentially override the brain’s usual ability for cold, rational decision-making.

Overcoming stress

So what should you do if you are suffering from chronic stress? Luckily there are ways to tackle it. The UK Government Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing has recommended evidenced-based ways to mental wellbeing.

We know, for example, that exercise has established benefits against chronic stress. Exercise tackles inflammation by leading to an anti-inflammatory response. In addition, exercise increases neurogenesis – the production of new brain cells – in important areas, such as the hippocampus. It also improves your mood, your cognition and your physical health.

Another key way to beat stress involves connecting with people around you, such as family, friends and neighbours. When you are under stress, relaxing and interacting with friends and family will distract you and help reduce the feelings of stress.

Learning may be a less obvious method. Education leads to a cognitive reserve – a stockpile of thinking abilities – which provides some protection when we have negative life events. In fact, we know that people are less likely to suffer from depression and problems in cognition if they have better cognitive reserve.

Other methods include mindfulness, allowing us to take notice and be curious of the world around us and spend time in the moment. Giving is another – volunteering or donating to a charity activates the reward system in your brain and promotes positive feelings about life.

Importantly, when you experience chronic stress, do not wait and let things get the better of you. Early detection and early effective treatment is the key to a good outcome and good wellbeing. Remember to act in a holistic manner to improve your mood, your thinking and your physical health.

And you don’t have to wait until you are overwhelmed with stress. Ultimately, it is important that we learn from an early age to keep our brain fit throughout our whole life course.

If stress at work is interfering with your performance or personal life, take action

The workplace can sometimes feel like an emotional roller coaster.

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WE HAVE ALL experienced stress in the workplace at one time or another. Even when we’re lucky enough to love what we do, it’s normal to experience some level of stress throughout the day.

In today’s busy world, the workplace can sometimes feel like an emotional roller coaster. Long hours, tight deadlines, and ever-increasing demands can leave us feeling worried, drained, and overwhelmed.

When stress exceeds our ability to cope, it stops being helpful and starts causing damage to our mind. It can make us feel anxious and overwhelmed, dampening our job satisfaction and productivity.

If stress on the job is interfering with your work performance, health, or personal life, it’s time to take action.

We encourage all our clients, customers, staff and students to take regular ‘booster’ breaks – 15 minutes, or whatever you can spare, to unwind, away from phone calls, computers, TVs, and smartphones. Whether that time is spent reconnecting with colleagues, taking a walk, reading a book or listening to music.

No matter what you do for a living, or how stressful your job is, there are plenty of things you can do to reduce your overall stress levels and regain a sense of control at work.

Implementing some of the following practices will help:

Take care of your body

Eating well is key to overall health, including your mental well-being. Be sure to eat nutritious meals, drink plenty of water and get enough sleep. Getting too little or too much sleep can have a big impact on how you feel.

Stay active

Exercise offers many benefits and when you exercise; your brain releases the feel-good chemicals, endorphins, giving you an instant mood boost. From going for a long walk and participating in outdoors sports to taking a fitness class, there are hundreds of ways you can be active.

Regardless of your age and fitness level, exercise can make you feel good about yourself, as well as protect you from all kinds of health problems. Even 10 minutes of exercise every day can have a positive impact on both your physical and mental health.

Connect with family, friends and colleagues

Have people around you that matter and enrich your life. Build relationships with the people around you and invest time connecting with people at home, work and in your community.

A great level of social support and encouragement is essential for your happiness and emotional health, even if it’s just from a handful of people.

Value yourself

Treat yourself with kindness and respect, and avoid self-criticism. Make time for your hobbies and do something you enjoy. Whether it’s taking a long walk, doing a daily crossword or going to the cinema, it’s positive for your wellbeing to do something that makes you feel good.

Set realistic goals

Aim high, but be realistic. Create realistic goals and take steps to achieve them. Even small steps are a sign of progress. Keep moving forward.

Don’t be a hero

If you over-commit by taking on too many projects with unrealistic deadlines, you will not only lose credibility at work but you will also stress yourself out unnecessarily. If you can delegate or share the responsibility for some projects, go ahead.

Take your 15

Booster breaks, whether they are 15 minutes or five, have been proven to reduce stress, fatigue and mental pressure. Making time for regular breaks, regardless of how busy you are, will make a real difference to your productivity, job satisfaction and overall well-being.

Get help when you need it

Seeking help is a sign of strength — not a weakness. Don’t think that you’re wasting someone’s time; it’s always OK to accept that you’re not always able to cope. We all need help and support from time to time.

Elbha Purcell is head of dietetics and well-being at Aramark Northern Europe, which is running its TAKE15 campaign during the month of October. 

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