Do I have anxiety, or am I just a bit stressed?
This is how I feel far too much of the time (Picture: Liberty Antonia Sadler for Metro.co.uk)

For a long time, I couldn’t tell the difference between being stressed and having anxiety.

Chiefly because I have problems with both.

I struggle with stress – and it got so bad it made me ill

I’ve always been a ‘stress-head’ – I get worried about things, I want to do my best, and I put a lot of pressure on myself.

When I get too stressed I get all manner of exciting symptoms, both physical and mental, most of which are down to the exhaustion of being so stressed for so long.

It wipes me out, and I need to spend a long weekend on a sofa, ideally with a dog I’ve borrowed from somewhere.

And that’s where I can start to spot the differences – if it’s stress, a weekend of R&R will generally fix me. If it’s anxiety, the road to feeling better is a lot steeper.

‘People often use ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ interchangeably thinking them to be the same thing whereas they are actually quite different,’ says psychotherapist Juliusz Wodzianski of Talk Therapy London.

‘Stress is an everyday response to pressures that occur in life on a constant basis…

‘Anxiety, on the other hand, is a psychological factor… This is a very real thing which can lead to panic attacks, physical pain and dizziness, amongst other things.’

I don’t always suffer from anxiety – for me, it flares up a few times a year, sometimes just for a few days, and sometimes it hangs around for a month or more.

But I’m constantly on the look-out for it, remaining vigilant, ready to tackle it as early as possible when it strikes.

I have an anxiety disorder and people need to stop saying these things to me
What helps with stress doesn’t necessarily help with anxiety (Picture: Mmuffin for Metro.co.uk)

The problem is, the early stages do look quite a bit like stress. And for many people, myself included, stress can trigger an anxiety episode.

So how do you tell the difference between the two?

‘Although both can cause sleepless nights and very real physical symptoms like an upset stomach and muscle tension, anxiety is more out of control,’ explains Dr Sheri Jacobson of Harley Therapy.

‘Anxiety tends to be more illogical. So if you are the type who is sensitive to stress, you may struggle to fall asleep at night worrying about very real [things]…

‘If you are anxious, your thoughts will run more towards random future scenarios.’

I know that game.

Once my worries shift from ‘wow, I’ve got a lot to get done’, to ‘what if my phone charger sets fire to the house while I’m sleeping?’ I know I’m in trouble.

I’ve also learned to spot different physical symptoms. If I’m stressed I’ll feel very run-down and I’ll become susceptible to things like colds, sore throats and tooth infections.

If I’m anxious, I’ll start to get flutters across my chest, my back muscles will tense randomly as if I’m sensing danger behind me (apparently anxious-me thinks I’m Spider-Man) and I’ll start clenching my hands uncontrollably.

There are very different mental symptoms too.

Do I have anxiety, or am I just a bit stressed?
Anxiety brings negative thoughts (Picture: Liberty Antonia Sadler for Metro.co.uk)

Whereas stress leads me to constantly think about all the things I need to do, anxiety will make it hard for me to concentrate on what needs doing, because my brain has started to fixate on things I can’t control.

The other major difference is that there can be good stress, but there is absolutely no such thing as good anxiety.

Good stress will spur you on to power through an unusually large workload, or release the adrenalin you need to get you through something you’re nervous about.

Sure, stress can then go too far and become seriously unhelpful, but it’s a natural and (generally) healthy response in the human body. We experience it for a reason.

Anxiety is just a useless sack of sh*t that wants to tell us negative things about ourselves, obsess over things we can’t control, and have panic attacks at inconvenient times.

‘In many ways stress is easier to manage [than anxiety],’ Juliusz Wodzianski says.

‘If the thing causing the particular stress is dealt with the stress will reduce.

‘There are also various tips which help to mitigate stress such as exercise, hydration, plenty of sleep and mindfulness.

‘Anxiety on the other hand, to be managed effectively, will often involve working with a psychotherapist (or other professional) to uncover the event or events that may have initiated the onset of anxiety.’

The NHS offers cognitive behavioural therapy to people who are suffering anxiety (so long as you don’t mind the waiting list), which teaches you techniques for keeping anxiety under control.

Different techniques work for different people, and what has helped me won’t necessarily help you.

But I’ve found that learning to tell the difference between stress and anxiety, and spotting it in the early stages before it can get its claws in, has been the most effective treatment.

Find out more about anxiety on the Mind website. If you think you’re suffering with anxiety, see your GP for advice.

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