Anxiety

Am I Stressed Out, Or Do I Have An Anxiety Disorder?

August 7, 2021

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We’ve all been stressed out before. Maybe you have a big exam coming up, or an important presentation in front of your boss. Maybe you’re in a fight with a close friend, or your significant other is undergoing surgery. No matter what the cause, you know the feeling: uneasy stomach, sweaty palms, racing heartbeat.

Usually, this feeling just indicates regular stress, but sometimes it can be a sign of something more serious, like an anxiety disorder. It can be difficult to tell which you are experiencing, unless you know the difference.

A stressed woman sits at a table, head in hands, brow furrowed, staring at her computer
Every person will experience stress at some point in their life. Often, this stress comes from responsibilities such as work or school, or from navigating difficult social situations. However, the important thing is that this stress will pass.

What is stress?

You’ve probably felt the symptoms of stress before. They range from the emotional to the physical, all over your body, including but not limited to:

  • Irritability
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Low energy
  • Upset stomach
  • Chest pain and/or rapid heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Shaking and fidgeting
  • Insomnia

Typically, these symptoms happen when we are going through stressful situations. This can include increased responsibilities at work, at school, or in the home. It can also include some social situations, like fighting with your best friend, or waiting on uncertain outcomes.

When you feel threatened or under pressure, your body releases certain hormones, including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. These hormones are what causes the “fight-or-flight” reaction: among other things, adrenaline raises your heart rate, norepinephrine increases blood flow to your muscles, and cortisol increases the level of sugar in your blood.

Stress developed as an evolutionary advantage — those who go into fight-or-flight mode were more likely to survive dangerous encounters. That same feeling still happens today, only nowadays, we face deadlines and traffic jams instead of hungry predators.

Stress can even be a positive in moderation. It can make us more resilient and more tolerant of discomfort. Sometimes, stress is the main motivator in tackling a problem or responsibility head-on. And if a stressful situation is imminently dangerous, the racing thoughts, adrenaline rush, and rapid breathing makes us better equipped to protect ourselves.

If your stress is inhibiting you more than helping you, there are many ways to combat it. Exercise is one of the fastest and most effective stress-relievers there is, along with yoga and meditation. Getting enough sleep at night and managing your time effectively can help to reduce stress in the longer term.

Stress is a completely normal and common part of life. All people experience it at one point or another. But it’s important to remember that just as stressful situations are fleeting, so are the feelings they cause. If you seem to be getting stressed much more often or more easily than normal, you could be suffering from something much more serious.

A man at his kitchen table holds his head in his hand, face obscured, as he stares out the window
Unlike typical stress, anxiety disorders bring on feelings of nervousness and unease that aren’t caused by significant stressors. In fact, those with anxiety disorders may feel anxious for seemingly no reason at all.

What is an anxiety disorder?

Many of the basic symptoms of anxiety disorders are similar to those of typical stress, which is why many people get them confused. Anxiety disorders are marked by feelings of fear or tension, rapid heart rate, sweating, difficulty focusing, gastrointestinal problems, and more. 

What distinguishes anxiety from stress comes down to two main criteria: how often symptoms occur, and how strong they are relative to the situation. Feelings of stress that happen all the time or seem to be excessive in nature could indicate an anxiety disorder is present.

With anxiety disorders, symptoms may come completely out of the blue, affecting you even without any identifiable stressors — for example, relaxing in bed when all of a sudden you notice you have a stomach ache and sweaty palms. Another warning sign of an anxiety disorder is when strong feelings of stress are continually triggered by small responsibilities that wouldn’t stress out the average person.

Some anxiety disorders, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), are accompanied by disruptive symptoms. In the case of OCD, compulsive behaviors — commonly-known ones include checking locks and washing hands — are used to counteract or avoid anxiety.

One of the most alarming and disruptive symptoms of an anxiety disorder is the presence of panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden, intense episodes of fear that happen without any real cause or danger. 

Many people believe they are having a mental breakdown or medical emergency when they experience a panic attack, as the physical reactions are so severe. Some even feel like they are going to die during one of these episodes. Panic attacks are not actually life-threatening, but they can be very impactful and scary, especially when they are recurrent. 

Anxiety disorders are exceedingly common — in fact, they are the most common kind of mental illness in the U.S. and affect 18.1% of the population every year. They are distinguished from regular stress by their chronic and often irrational nature. While stress comes and goes naturally, anxiety disorders can affect your mind all of the time, and can get worse over time if untreated. 

I think I have an anxiety disorder. What should I do?

If you think you could have an anxiety disorder, the most important thing is to speak to a mental health professional — whether it’s your primary care physician, a therapist in your area, or even an online resource. You cannot diagnose yourself with an anxiety disorder; only a professional can do this.

Your doctor may recommend a variety of treatments. It is very likely that they will encourage you to engage in some form of psychotherapy — most likely cognitive behavioral therapy. They may also prescribe medication, such as antidepressants, to help lessen the symptoms of anxiety. These interventions will help you to manage your anxiety so that it does not interfere as strongly with your life.

In addition to medication, there are many non-invasive treatments for anxiety that have been found to be highly effective. One such treatment is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS. TMS helps to activate the parts of your brain that can help improve your mood and alleviate your symptoms. Some anxiety patients have experienced full remission as a result of TMS therapy.

Thanks to advances in psychology and psychiatry, anxiety disorders are manageable and recovery from them is possible. But if left untreated, they will continue to interfere with — and even threaten — your life. 

Experiencing periods of stress is normal. In fact, it can even be healthy and a positive force in your life, in moderation. But it can also be incredibly difficult to deal with, interfering with your mental, physical, emotional, and social health. 

It is important to engage in healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise, meditation, and finding balance, to reduce stress. Doing so can help keep your stress from snowballing and developing into an anxiety disorder.

People often get confused by the differences between anxiety and stress. This is understandable — the two present extremely similar symptoms. But while moderate levels of stress may come and go depending on what’s going on in your life, anxiety disorders are characterized by chronic and irrational feelings of fear or tension. Symptoms of anxiety disorders are much more disruptive, and can even include panic attacks. 

If you believe you experience abnormal levels of stress in your life, and are concerned about your ability to manage it on your own, talk to a mental health professional today. Through scientifically proven mental health treatments such as psychotherapy, medication, or TMS, your anxiety could be relieved before you know it.

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