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by Malavika R

The Difference between Stress & Anxiety

“Stress” and “anxiety” are two terms that have become common in our vernacular. They are used interchangeably by us to describe the taxing feelings we often feel psychologically as well as physically as a response to an overwhelming circumstance. However, there is a fine line between stress and anxiety.

What is Stress?

Generally speaking, stress is the body’s way of responding to any demands made to it. There are two kinds of stress: Eustress and Distress. Eustress is termed as the “good stress” as it is a form of stress that is beneficial to us. It is usually associated with a feeling of fulfillment and achievement. People experience eustress when they attempt challenging but attainable and enjoyable/worthwhile tasks, such as undertaking a new work project that can leverage one’s job profile, traveling to and exploring new places, participating in adventurous activities, etc. Eustress helps us stay motivated and increases our feelings of autonomy and self-worth.

Distress on the other hand is the psychological and physical strain or tension generated by physical, emotional, social, economic, or occupational circumstances. It typically results from a short-term external trigger that makes one feel like they lack the skills to deal with the particular situation and thereby end up feeling overwhelmed. What we mean when we say “stress”, is often distress. People undergoing a loss, facing threats, suffering from a chronic illness, or facing excessive demands from their life situations experience distress. It can manifest into physical symptoms such as fatigue, body pain, trouble sleeping, and irritability and can be difficult to manage and endure. 

Distress caused by a particular life event can be managed by self-care methods and by the psychological and emotional support offered by friends and family or by a mental health professional. Medications are often not necessary to alleviate the feelings of distress.


How is anxiety different from distress?

Anxiety is a state of uneasiness that causes excessive worries that tend to be persistent even in the absence of an external trigger or stressor. It is accompanied by somatic signs and symptoms of tension, focused on apprehension of possible failure, misfortune, or danger. People suffering from anxiety can experience symptoms similar to distress including digestive issues, insomnia, and restlessness. Other symptoms include rapid heartbeat, sense of fear and panic, nausea, dizziness, breathlessness and shivering/trembling of the body.

There are both environmental and genetic factors that contribute to anxiety. Trauma occurred in childhood or adulthood is one of the most significant factors that causes anxiety. Physical conditions, such as thyroid problems, also impact anxiety. Anxiety can be short-term or it can develop into anxiety disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias, panic disorders, and social anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders affect one’s day-to-day functioning and can cause one to have emotional outbursts to even small triggers. They are more difficult to control and cope with. People suffering from anxiety often tend to avoid situations that might act as triggers to their anxiety.

Anxiety can be managed by following a healthy lifestyle including proper diet, exercises, and practicing relaxation techniques. As was the case with distress, proper help and support from near and dear ones make a huge difference in a person’s ability to manage his/her anxiety. Anxiety disorders can be treated by a mental health professional by means of counselling, therapies – such as cognitive behaviour therapy, and medications.

Although distress may seem to be mundane and less intimidating when compared to anxiety, prolonged distress, if not addressed, can lead to emotional disturbances such as anxiety disorders, depression and such. Therefore, it is important to recognise and understand your psychological state, be it distress or anxiety, and seek appropriate help and treatment measures to manage the same in a timely manner.

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