Panic Button: Are You Suffering From Anxiety Or Just Stress?

One's a typical reaction to everyday pressure. The other's a common mental health concern, but how can you tell the difference? Victoria Stokes finds out.

“Stop it! You’re giving me anxiety.” How many times have you said that to a mate when her not-so cute habits are driving you up the walls, or claimed to be on the brink of a panic attack over that looming deadline?

Blame our busier than ever lives, but it’s true that anxiety has become a word that’s part of our daily vocabulary; a co-worker says she’s anxious about delivering that big presentation, a close friend admits to having panic attacks on the reg.

Anxiety is something we discuss daily and it’s certainly becoming a growing concern. In fact, it’s estimated that one in nine people will be affected by the disorder in their lifetime. But with everyday pressures blurring the lines, how can you tell if it’s genuine anxiety or just plain old millennial stress that’s making you feel less than your best?

“Stress refers to the extent to which a person perceives that their demands exceed their ability to cope,” explains Dr Sabina Brennan, a professor at Trinity College. “Anxiety disorders on the other hand involve excessive fear and can cause people to avoid situations affecting their jobs, college work and relationships.”

While everyday stress might see you tearing your hair out at your desk or pulling a fouler, anxiety typically has more extreme characteristics, including muscle tension, debilitating panic and avoidance behaviours.

“Generally speaking for a person to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder their fear must interfere with their ability to function normally and be disproportionate to the situation in question,” Sabina clarifies.

Contrastingly, a healthy amount of stress can actually be a positive thing. Unlike anxiety “well-managed stress supports us through challenge and change, making us more resilient and better equipped for whatever life throws at us,” Sabina makes clear.

The problem arises when you’re suffering high levels of pressure on a long-term basis. “Chronic stress increases the activity of neural connections in the brain’s fear centre and as levels of cortisol rise, stress control can deteriorate,” Sabina warns.

What’s more is, there’s scientific evidence to support the link between acute levels of long term stress and the development of anxious tendencies.

In one study, published in the medical journal Behavioral Neuroscience, researchers noted that if stress is not managed well over time it can increase the chances of developing all the hallmarks of an anxiety disorder.

That’s something, Ciara*, 29, an accountant from Dublin experienced last year when unrelenting pressure at work led to her developing anxiety and panic attacks. “I’ve never been an anxious person, but that all changed when I started a new job,” she confides. “I was new to the industry and out of my depth, something that wasn’t helped by the tyrannical boss I found myself working under.

“I began to dread coming into work everyday and I was terrified of making mistakes,” she recalls. “Every time I’d see her name ping into my inbox my panic levels would rise.”

After months of dealing with an unhealthy amount of stress, it all came to a head for Ciara one Sunday.

“I was in town and it suddenly hit me that I’d have to go back into the office the next day. My whole body tensed up, my heart felt like it was thudding out of my chest and I couldn’t catch my breath. I rang a friend and burst into tears. My legs felt like jelly for hours afterwards. That’s when I knew I wasn’t just dealing with stress anymore.”

After that the attacks came more regularly for Ciara; before meetings, during lunch breaks and even on her time off. “Things didn’t improve until sometime later,” she muses. “My GP put me on anti-anxiety medication, but it wasn’t until my boss left the role that my anxiety started to ease.”

These days, thanks to the change in her work environment, Ciara very rarely suffers panic attacks, but what if anxiety isn’t just circumstantial, it’s your modus operandi?

Well, in the same way stress and anxiety differ in their characteristics, they also require two distinct methods when it comes to getting them under control.

Self care should be your first port of call when it comes to an anxiety issue, stresses psychotherapist Martha Ryan. That means maintaining a balanced life first and foremost. “Don’t over commit or take too much on,” she urges. “Exercise, a healthy diet and sleep can all work wonders,”

When panic does set in though, refocusing your attention is key. “Instead of seeing problems ask yourself if there is something else you can focus on,” Martha advises. “Try breathing exercises to slow down your heart rate, listen to some relaxing music or go for a walk.”

Crucially though, if anxiety and panic attacks are becoming overwhelming there is help at hand. Visit your GP: they may offer you a referral for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or suggest medication that can help you manage it.

Stress on the other hand, requires a shift in your perspective. Sabina’s advice? “When you get that wobbly feeling in your gut try naming it excitement rather than stress – the feelings are almost identical,” she reassures.

When it all gets too much, it can help to see the opportunity in the situation. “Life would be boring and static without challenge, uncertainty and novelty – what would life be like if we didn’t go on that first date, attend that job interview, or make that speech?” Sabina asks.

Basically, if you manage them right, those stressy feelings can actually be an excellent opportunity for growth and development – it just takes getting through the tough part first.

*Name has been changed.

This article first appeared in STELLAR’s April issue. Our May issue is on shelves now!

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