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Is it Stress or Anxiety?

Updated: May 2, 2020

So it seems that we all have plenty of stress AND anxiety to deal with in our daily lives these days and for some reason I'm finding that more and more people tend to use these words interchangeably, as if they almost mean the same thing. Now while there is nothing wrong with doing this, I find that the reason people often do this is because it can be easier to admit to others that we are stressed rather than admitting that we're actually experiencing feelings of anxiety. Now why is this?

I think one of the most prevalent reasons for this is that, as a society, we tend to glorify 'busy' and what I mean by that is: when someone asks us how we are and what's been happening our first response tends to be something like;

"Oh you know, I've just been crazy busy lately. Like there's just so much going on and it's hard to keep up and it feels like I'm rushing from one thing to the next. Ya just like, super busy".

Have you noticed yourself saying something similar, or hearing your friends and loved ones answer in this way? 'Busy' seems to be equated with 'important'. It seems that if we are so busy, we must have lots going on in our lives which makes us important, valuable, successful, social and loved. By glorifying busy, we almost justify the right to be stressed. By giving ourselves permission to feel stressed we don't mind sharing with others that we are stressed, even if what we are experiencing is actually anxiety. It's easy to say, "I've been really stressed out lately"(I'll get to what anxiety actually is a little later).

Is this an accurate reflection of what 'busy' really means though? I'm of the opinion that what it really means is that we want to be regarded as important, valuable, successful, social, loved, etc but we don't necessarily see ourselves that way. Is it true that we put pressure on ourselves to be 'busy' and that if we're not busy then we tend to judge ourselves and bring ourselves down by saying we're not doing enough or being enough. And yes, we do all live incredibly FULL lives, juggling many commitments and relationships at once, but could we describe this better when people check in with us? By saying 'I'm so busy', it immediately makes us feel validated because we've learnt to place value on this but at the same time it makes us actually feel stressed out.

Being busy all the time leads to burn out, not success! So let's start by reframing busy to full. Having a full life has such positive and beautiful connotations. If we are living a full life, we have many things going on; we are interacting, we are engaged, we are moving forwards and we are grateful for this at the same time. Simultaneously, living fully also incorporates down time to relax and take care of yourself, whereas 'busy' doesn't leave time for things such as that, we are simply too busy to relax or do something spontaneous or fun.

So perhaps the above explains stress to an extent. Stress basically involves all the things we have going on everyday that can sometimes make us feel irritable, agitated, tearful, emotional or even overwhelmed. Stress can build up over time and can become very severe, sometimes leading to anxiety or even burn out. Stress is in no way something to ignore or not be concerned about just because it's something we experience regularly. In fact, we should all have ways of preventing build ups of stress in our lives; a toolbox of go-to self-care and stress relieving activities which give us time to switch off and reset.

To start building your own toolbox start by determining some of the tell-tale signs that come up which indicate to you that you are feeling stressed. It is important to know these things so you may recognise when stress is presenting within your body. They may arise: physically in your body; through your immune system; through fatigue; your energy levels; your eating habits; changes in sleeping habits; or through your moods. How do you know when things are becoming stressful? Jot down your personal signs and symptoms and keep them somewhere safe. Then make a list of 10 things that you can do to help you relieve stress. Think of those things that make you feel alive, calm, joyful and content. Refer back to this list when things are starting to feel a little too 'busy' and make time for at least one of the items on your list. These things don't have to be profound or take up too much of your time. If we're honest with ourselves here, we could totally find time to fit at least one of these things in everyday, no matter how 'busy' we may find ourselves.

Okay so now to unpack anxiety a bit. Does anyone else get the creepies when you start to think about anxiety and what it means or how it feels? I feel like the even word 'anxiety' has the power to make people feel anxious. So we already know that it's quite a strong feeling. Think about how it may feel in your body when you feel anxious; your palms may become sweaty; heart racing; short of breath; dizzy; numb; sore tummy; upset tummy; shakey; headaches, etc. Everyone feels it slightly differently but there are common factors.

Anxiety is actually really common these days as it is triggered by danger signals to the brain. Back in the caveman days, anxiety was experienced by more primal fears. For example, if a lion was chasing you in the wild, your brain would send off an anxiety signal in order to give you the opportunity to react and get yourself out of danger. We call this the fight, flight or freeze mode. In our current society there are MANY stimulating factors that may set off panic signals in our brains, sending the message to the brain that we are in danger. This is what is referred to as everyday anxiety; it is something that most people will experience from time to time and it can be uncomfortable but it will usually pass over within the day. This is also important to have as it may signal to us when we are in real danger and not just perceived danger. It's always good to recognise when you are feeling anxious by saying to yourself, "I am feeling anxious". By doing this we can acknowledge the emotion and give it more space to pass over. See some anxiety calming ideas for mind, body and soul below.

More chronic anxiety or clinical anxiety is something which is really difficult to control or talk ourselves down from and it can last a lot longer, even for days at a time. It can involve some or all of the following symptoms: excessive, ongoing worry and tension; sometimes an unrealistic view of problems; restlessness or a feeling of being 'on-edge'; irritability; muscle tension; difficulty concentrating; headaches; dizziness; nausea; trembling; being easily startled; frequently feeling out of breath; heart palpitations; tiredness; trouble falling asleep; changes in appetite, either eating more or less. There are many different types of anxiety.

If you are feeling like a lot of these things apply to you, you can begin by trying some of the self-care actions indicated here and you should seriously consider reaching out to a someone in your support system that could help steer you in the right direction to seek out a mental health practitioner. On the same note, if you are feeling overwhelmed with stress don't hold back from reaching out for support.

We all need support at different times in our lives and it's good to be able to recognise when you do. There is nothing to be ashamed of if you are experiencing stress or anxiety and it can improve with the right support in place. Asking for help is sometimes the most empowering thing you can do.

Please share your thoughts with me about our 'busy' and full lives which often lead to stress AND anxiety. I love hearing about your experiences and what helps you personally.

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