How Can You Tell the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

Mind management for the terminally tense
woman walking along a road surrounded by trees
© Can Stock Photo / Tinnakorn

Stress and anxiety are a reality for most of us at one time or another. But how do we differentiate between stress and anxiety, how do we know that if what we’re experiencing is at a healthy level, and how can we improve situations that may be spiralling out of control? We got you.

Does this sound familiar?

It’s 6 am and you fly out of bed to prepare breakfast and lunches for the day ahead. In the whirlwind of the morning routine, you forget to eat your own breakfast before leaving for work, dreading the traffic you have to face. Before you know it, its lunchtime and you wolf down a sandwich at your desk because you’ve got to get that report done by day’s end. Now it’s 5:30. Next is your commute home, getting dinner together, kids to bed, house tidied, and last-minute emails answered. Oops…you forget to call your mom. By the time your head hits the pillow, you find you cannot turn off the thoughts, worrying about that upcoming work presentation or going through a to-do list for the week. Although you are exhausted, sleep is elusive, and you can’t quell your anxiety.

If this sounds like you, read on to find out what's happening when you routinely feel like you just want to turn over and stay in bed, and what you can do about it.

Is it stress?

According to Canadian physician and renowned expert in the field of addiction, stress, and childhood trauma, Dr. Gabor Mate, the experience of stress is comprised of three parts. The first is the external situation we are faced with. Perhaps it is a deadline at work, feeling pressed for time, an argument with a loved one, a financial burden, or an unexpected change. This external situation is called the stressor. The next part is how we interpret our stressor, how we assign meaning or importance to it. This step is highly individual: what one person perceives as a stressor another may not. The third part is the way in which our bodies and behaviours change in response to our interpretation of our stressor.

Stress is an internal response to an external situation, and while it may last longer than we like, it shouldn’t last forever. In fact, once we meet that deadline or resolve the argument, we should feel at ease once more.1

Super-stressed

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, to some extent we need it in our lives. When we are faced with a challenge, stress is what signals a cortisol spike, giving us the energy to rise to the occasion. The trouble is when stress becomes chronic it is no longer playing its adaptive role. It is well established that chronic stress can contribute to disease, has a direct link to anxiety and depression, and has also been implicated in high blood pressure, insomnia, and reduced immune function.2 In order to combat this, it’s important to learn healthy stress management strategies—this is true for both adults and for children.


man with head in hands looking stressed
ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com

Or is it anxiety?

Stress and anxiety can be two sides of the same coin, as often with one comes the other. Further, they both share many of the same physical symptoms—headaches, high blood pressure, loss of sleep, and uneasiness—making it difficult to really differentiate between the two. While stress is generally the direct result of an actual situation, anxiety is more vague or anticipatory, relating to the worry or fear about a possible stressor or a potential outcome, and oftentimes can arise from situations that are not truly threatening. Like stress, some anxiety is to be expected in our day-to-day lives and can also serve protective functions. Maybe we feel anxious about an upcoming speech we are giving, about our child’s first day of school, or about starting a new job. These anxieties are usually mild and should not significantly impact daily activities or responsibilities. But like stress, anxiety can become more chronic in nature.

Overly-anxious

According to the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health, up to one in four adults has suffered with an anxiety disorder at one time in their lives.3 When we begin to have daily, excessive, or long-lasting worrisome thoughts it can impact both our physiology and our behaviour. Anxiety can trigger heart palpitations, insomnia, sweating, nausea, and dry mouth.4 It can also more generally affect how we live our lives. Unlike normal stress, chronic anxiety persists even after the concern has passed, and the worrisome thoughts may drive us to avoidance, stopping us from engaging in certain activities that we might have previously enjoyed. Avoiding crowded places or social events, denying oneself the opportunity to apply for a promotion at work, or even something necessary like driving or going outdoors are all indicators that anxiety may be reaching an unhealthy threshold.

Children have stress too

Children face stressors as much as adults. Adjusting to daycare, changing schools, moving houses, parents separating, or the loss of a loved one or pet are all big changes for kids. Many times, children adapt well with the loving support of their families, teachers, and peers. However, some children will experience anxiety, the symptoms of which differ from those experienced by grown-ups. Excessive shyness, constant worry, frequent tummy aches or headaches, clinginess and/or severe separation anxiety are all indicators that the stress in your child’s life might be getting too big for them to handle on their own.5 And just like in adults, these behaviours should be short-lived and part of an adjustment period. It is when they persist and fall into the chronic category that the direction of a professional will be beneficial.

As our children grow and transition from one stage to the next, they will face a variety of circumstances that may give rise to stress and anxiety. This makes it important for us to help give them healthy tools for managing their stressors, at every age and stage.

woman feeling refreshed and stretching in the morning
A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock.com

STRESS OUT!

Try these techniques and practices to prevent, reduce, and alleviate stress and anxiety.

Move it, move it

Making time for exercise can feel impossible when we are stressed. Yet moving our bodies and taking some time away from our stressors can help us step back from the situation and perhaps even reframe our approach to the circumstance. Physical activity releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that have a feel-good effect. Making exercise a consistent part of our daily routines contributes to better overall physical health, brain health, life satisfaction, and improved mental health.6 Try to be creative and choose activities you will really enjoy. Check out the new yoga studio in town, plan a family hike, take the dog for an extended walk, or join in on the free swim at your local pool.

Physical activity is just as important for kids. The health benefits of keeping our children physically active means not only improved body composition, but also decreased anxiety and depression, improved self-esteem, and lowered risk for diabetes and sleep disorders.7 Canadian guidelines suggest that children aged 5-17 years should be getting a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity daily and limit screen time to 2 hours a day or less. Getting children involved in sports is only one way to promote physical activity. Make going to the park after school and walking the dog part of your routine, or increase active transportation by rollerblading or bike riding to work or school.

Motivate mindfulness

Mindfulness practices can be worked in to our daily lives and can lower levels of perceived stress. This, in turn, can help us respond with less anxiety when unexpected stressors arise. Recently, more research has been devoted to mindfulness-based therapies and mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques that can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.8

What exactly is mindfulness? Simply put, it’s the practice of acknowledging our current experience in a non-judgemental way by bringing awareness to our thoughts, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness asks us to be curious about the moment, to accept what is going on for us, and to allow focused attention. If we really think about it, this is quite different from how we typically go through our days. Our minds are so often filled with sudden thoughts, jumping from one thing to the next, forgetting to really take in the experiences of the day. In fact, a wandering mind and inattention have been linked to maladaptive behaviours. When we are present, we are happier!

Mindfulness can include a yoga practice or meditation class. It can also be done at home with a 10-minute guided imagery meditation, body scan exercise, or breathing routine. Mindfulness takes practice, and the more we practice, the easier it becomes.


Mindful living

Make mindfulness easy with apps like Headspace and MindShift, which help to give structure and motivation to practice daily! Or reshift your thinking at bedtime with apps like Calm to help get you sleep-ready.

Help build mindfulness into your child’s life with books like A Handful of Quiet: Mindfulness in Four Pebbles by Thich Nhat Hanh, or Sitting Still Like A Frog by Eline Snel.


Nurture nature

Most of us can appreciate the beauty of a well-manicured garden, the giant trees of an ancient forest, or the expanse of an open field. But besides being aesthetically pleasing, nature has a positive physiological and psychological impact on our brains!

Eva Selhub and Alan Logan’s, Your Brain On Nature famously examines this fascinating topic. In one study, adults who were performing a variety of activities in a garden setting had significantly less stress hormone (cortisol) than those performing the same activities in a classroom setting. It also highlights the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku (meaning “forest bathing”: a contemplative, intuitive, traversing of nature with no specific destination, intention, or outcome), has been shown to not only decrease stress and depressive symptoms but to improve sleep.

While it may not always be possible to spend time in the forest, there are ways we can increase our exposure to nature. Move that yoga practice or HIIT training outside when weather permits. Add a few plants to your home or office. Take up gardening.

Sweet sleep

A key to supporting healthy stress management is ensuring proper sleep. Both the quantity and quality of our sleep are integral for fostering optimal health, and this is particularly true when we are under added stress. The average adult should aim for about 8 hours of sleep per night, while children require significantly more. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends 10-13 hours of sleep for children aged 3-5 years; 9-12 hours for children aged 6-12 years; and 8-10 hours for teenagers.9

Meal deal

It is also essential to control blood sugar levels through nutrition. Although we may not think twice about skipping lunch so we can power through that presentation or settling for a handful of crackers for dinner so we can get the kids to dance class on time, the body perceives this drop in blood sugar as a stressor. When we skip meals our body releases cortisol to help keep us going. The best approach is to aim for at least three well-balanced meals per day. Each meal should have a source of lean protein, healthy fat, and fibre. This combination will help to keep us feeling satiated and support stable blood sugar levels throughout the day. In a well-rested and nutritionally balanced state, those stressors may seem a little less daunting.

It is also important to limit consumption of things that may exacerbate anxiety. While caffeine can be a morning (and maybe afternoon) go-to, it increases cortisol and may contribute to worsened anxiety. So, if you are feeling a little extra stressed, it may be time to reach for the herbal tea in place of that second (or third!) cup of coffee.

Help line

This one is incredibly important. When we are overwhelmed or in a state of chronic stress, we are far more likely to feel anxious, lose sleep, neglect self-care and skip meals. This becomes a self-perpetuating recipe for disaster. If stress begins to feel chronic, ask for help! Whether it’s asking a spouse for more support at home—maybe simply sharing dinner duty is just the reprieve you need! Getting that help allows you to carve out a little more time to focus on the stress management tools we have already discussed. Part of this may also be learning when to say no. Having healthy boundaries and knowing our own limits can help us avoid becoming overwhelmed and the chronic stress that can come with taking on too much. Asking for help could also include seeking out a counsellor or therapist. This is particularly important if you feel your stress and anxiety are spiralling and beginning to negatively impact your day-to-day behaviours. Not only is it only ok to ask for help, it is an essential part of supporting our overall health and well-being.

Let’s try this again.

Its 6 am and you awaken after a great 8-hour sleep. Before the kids get up you take 10 minutes to focus on your breath and get grounded. Next, you and the kids prepare lunches for the day ahead and sit down to have breakfast. Before you know it, it’s lunchtime. You head outside and enjoy your meal at a nearby picnic table before returning to finish out the day, refreshed from the air and the break. Your commute home allows you some quiet time with yourself (or a quick call to your mom!) before getting dinner together, kids to bed, house tidied, and last-minute emails answered. Even though you are feeling tired from a busy day, you take the dog for a brisk 30-minute walk. By the time your head hits the pillow, sleep comes easily.

We may not be able to completely change some of our day-to-day stressors. But by building healthy daily habits, we may be able to manage them in a more balanced manner.