StressDespite our tendency to conflate the two terms in our everyday speech, there’s a gulf in how our body actually deals with anxiety and stress and how they are caused.

For example, we might well say that a looming deadline at work or the thought of having to visit your partner’s family for Christmas is going to give us a panic attack while, in actual fact, we’re simply experiencing the body’s natural response to stress.

So how can you tell them apart?

The body’s reaction

Stress is a vital part of our evolutionary heritage – it’s the adrenaline-fuelled reaction our ancestors had when confronted by danger which allowed them to survive. And, yes, acute stress can lead to chronic stress thanks to the constant circulation of adrenaline and the hormone cortisol, which in turn can accentuate health issues such as heart disease, obesity and depression.

But anxiety is a diagnosable mental illness because of the way the brain experiences it – deep brain structures such as the amygdala and insular cortex show heightened activity similar to how they contend with fear rather than stressful situations.

This has allowed psychologists and therapists to be able to recognise specific diagnosable anxiety disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety and various childhood anxiety disorders.

In each of these cases, specific behaviours, raised activity in our neurocircuitry and unique reactions in areas of our brain associated with processing specific emotions can point to specific disorders.

Superficially, the body may seem to show some shared reactions to stress and anxiety – for example, the initial burst of adrenaline in both cases leads to symptoms of arousal such as raised heart rate, rapid breathing and muscle tension.

But those symptoms become more acute in the case of anxiety when it leads to a panic attack, which is typically associated with hyperventilation, chest pain, shaking, a choking sensation, the feeling of being detached from your surroundings, chills, headaches and hot flushes.

The basic causes

There’s obviously a certain amount of causation between stress and anxiety in that chronic stress found throughout most modern society provides the bedrock for diagnosable anxiety – after all anxiety disorders are the most frequently seen mental disorders in primary care in New Zealand and one in 15 New Zealand adults has a high or very high probability of having an anxiety or depressive mental illness.

But the two experiences still evolve from very different places.

Stress is caused by recognisable external situations – bills, getting the kids ready for school, a looming deadline at work. Which means they are also very easy to deal with through prioritising and a recognition that some events simply conspire to beat us.

Anxiety is a more complex beast – quite often it is a spiralling mixture of stress and fear whereby you end up being anxious about the fear of facing events which cause you to feel anxious. The emotions are so strong that this leads to avoidance and the further anxiety of missing out on events which you’ve avoided going to. Coping with anxiety is far more difficult than simply prioritising events – it involves addressing the anxiety and the cause of the fear directly, coming to terms with the bases of those fears, or becoming mindful of how your body is reacting to your anxiety.

  • The Robert St Clinic has a number of trained psychologists and therapists who can help you learn more about skills to deal with anxiety. For more information, contact us here or call 09 973 5950.