Is It “Just Stress” Or Is It Anxiety?
Contrary to popular belief, there is a significant difference between stress and anxiety. I will go on record to say there is no such thing as “just stress”, but since I hear that phrase almost every day from the women reaching out to me, I’ve elected to use it here.
In this article, I’ll share a few key differences with you from my guide to “Taming Stress & Overcoming Anxiety In Midlife”.
Stress comes from the pressures we feel in life as we are pushed by work or any other task that puts undue pressure on our mind and body. Seems that by the time we hit our mid-30s and beyond, the stress of yesteryear lingers longer.
As the stress is internalized, it has a compounding effect. Kind of like “compound interest” but totally different in that we do not want our stress to accumulate but we sure want our money to. The compounding of interest can lead to the accumulation of wealth and all that brings with it; whereas the compounding of stress can lead to a plethora of things on the negative side of life’s ledger.
Our body responds to stress with adrenaline (AKA epinephrine). Adrenaline boosts energy supplies in an “all hands on deck” kind of fashion. It does that to deal (or cope) with a situation with the intention of moving on to the next thing on the agenda.
When adrenaline’s presence is of the extended stay variety, it can lead to depression, a consistently raised blood glucose (sugar) and cortisol levels along with other negative changes and effects. Effects like high blood pressure and the potential for an early death.
The peanut butter to adrenaline’s jelly is cortisol, what I’d consider the primary stress hormone, at least it is the one the majority of us modern humans are stewing in. When cortisol is on scene, you’re locked and loaded to fight off threats, to freeze and hope whatever is coming for you gets side-tracked, or to get the hell-o out of wherever you must be to be ringing the stress alarm (flee).
Cortisol increases sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream. When it’s a here-and-there response, it is a useful action. When it is an all-day-everyday thing, it is detrimental and leads to a litany of negative issues. Insulin resistance being one of them. When cortisol and insulin are arm-wrestling, cortisol always wins. Your body prioritizes survival above all else. Makes sense right? I’m rather fond of that priority as I’m sure you are too.
In the short term, cortisol enhances your brain’s use of glucose, in turn making you mentally sharp and strategic. It also increases the availability of substances that repair tissues so you can clot off any bleeding when in a fight and potentially “not feel” the pain that is coming after injury. Now over the long term, constant exposure to elevated levels of both stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) leads to increased inflammation.
Key here, short term exposure to adrenaline and cortisol is good, long-term (chronic) exposure is no bueno. Don’t fool yourself, if you’re alive today, you are in chronic stress mode.
Cortisol also curbs nonessential functions during a fight-or-flight-or-freeze type situation. Rightfully so. Mounting an immune response, priming digestive juices and dialing up the “let’s get it on” mojo is not necessary during the “run, play dead, or fight like hell” response our body mounts in response to a threat. In addition to all of that, our complex built-in alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control our mood and motivation, as well as our fear.
When Our Stress Response Goes Rogue
The body’s stress response system is usually self-limiting. Meaning once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to “normal”. (SIDE NOTE: “Normal” is a loaded term, especially when it comes to the modern midlife woman’s level of stress. What’s “normal” for so many is anything but.)
As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to your baseline levels, and other systems resume their regularly scheduled program. Your baseline levels may be off-the-charts high already or artificially managed by meds. There is no one-size-fits-all stress response, and that’s something to walk away with after reading this post.
Here’s when it goes sideways. When stressors (which are the things to which you are responding with stress) are always present and you constantly feel “under attack”, that fight-flight-or-freeze reaction stays turned on, and is often set to MAX.
One of the negative effects of prolonged stress is anxiety.
With anxiety, fear overcomes all emotions and is often accompanied by worry and apprehension, making a person a recluse and often on edge or over-reactive to everything and everyone in their path. Other symptoms are chest pains, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Some may even experience panic attacks as a result of their unchecked anxiety.
Stress is caused by an existing stress-causing factor or stressor. Anxiety is stress that continues after that stressor is gone. Stress can come from any situation or thought that makes YOU feel frustrated, angry, nervous, or even anxious. What is stressful to one person is not necessarily stressful to another. Stress is in the eye of the beholder…and every other part of them.
Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension or fear and is almost always accompanied by feelings of impending doom. The source of this uneasiness is not always known or recognized, which can add to the distress you feel. Distress is the pain or suffering you experience as a result of the stress you experience.
Stress is the way our bodies and minds react to something which upsets our normal equilibrium in life. An example of stress is the response we feel when we are frightened or threatened. As noted earlier, during stressful events our adrenal glands release adrenaline, a hormone which activates our body’s defense mechanisms causing our hearts to pound, blood pressure to rise, muscles to tense, and the pupils of our eyes to dilate. This is where the phrase, “fight or flight” gets its inspiration. The additional “freeze” part is in reference to the fear we often internalize. “Paralysis by analysis” can fit into that subset.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are caused by the brain sending messages to parts of the body to prepare for the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. The heart and lungs work faster. Vessels dilate in the limbs and constrict in the gut as well as other organs such as the ovaries and uterus since reproducing is not a priority when survival is. The brain directs the system to release stress hormones seemingly from an endless tap, including adrenaline.
A principal indication of increased stress is an escalation in your pulse rate; however, a normal pulse rate doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t stressed. Constant aches and pains, palpitations, anxiety, chronic fatigue, crying, over or under-eating, frequent infections, and a decrease in your sexual desire are signs you may notice which indicate you may be under stress, a heaping helping of it.
Of course, every time we are under stress, we do not react to such an extreme. And we are not always under such great duress or fear every time we are confronted with a stressful situation.
Some people are more susceptible to stress than others; for some, even ordinary daily decisions can seem insurmountable. Deciding what to have for dinner or what to buy at the store can be a monumental dilemma for them. On the other hand, there are those people, who seem to thrive under stress by becoming highly productive, as if driven by the force of pressure. I am one of these people…until I am not. I hit my threshold a couple years ago and it almost crippled me.
Research shows women in perimenopause have higher levels of stress related hormones in their blood than women pre-peri and those who are postmenopausal. Ages vary, but from what I’ve seen predominantly in the literature, perimenopause can begin as early as the late 30s with the more common notation of around 45 for its onset and the most common age for a women to experience her menopause (365 days without her period or anything resembling it) is 51.
There is a complex cascade of chemicals at work when the stress response has kicked in. You can think of this as a pipeline for the chemicals from brain to the adrenal glands that is secreting the adrenaline and cortisol to communicate with tissues to prepare for battle. Your brain doesn’t know whether a stressor is an imminent threat or a perceived threat. To your brain, stress is stress. And it responds as it is designed to do.
Since more often than not, stress is a constant companion for the modern midlife woman, stress whacks out many other complex chemical cascades. Most notably our reproductive (sex hormone) pipeline and our metabolism (thyroid) pipeline.
Your Ability To Survive Trumps All Else
Digesting food, replacing spent cells, fighting off disease, and making babies (or just feeling frisky) are pushed to the wayside to circle back to when our collection of stressors are in the rearview mirror.
Trouble is, these days these constant companions are never in the rearview mirror. They ride shotgun and are demanding b*tches, never satisfied.
If you are in your late 30’s, starting to experience issues like plummeting energy, restless sleep, an expanding waistline, feelings of anxiety about the future (heck the “now”), changes in your period…you may be in the perimenopause stage of life. Please don’t fret…there is no cause for alarm. But there is cause for building your awareness and your coping skills. The fact that you’re reading this now versus when you’re in the throes of perimenopause like I am at 50 is a fantastic thing! If you’re in the thick of peri, like me, there is no reason to ring the alarm either. Whether just wading into the perimenopausal waters or you’re in full doggy paddle. Look into the conversation we’re having in the Unraveling Together community through this LINK.
Does this mean that women don’t experience stress before perimenopause or after they’ve cleared that last hurdle and are postmenopausal? (Do I really need to answer that?) Of course not! We have stressors at every stage in life. It’s how we cope with and manage those stressors that matters.
When we’re navigating perimenopause our ability to cope can be handicapped a bit, or a bunch. This varies by woman. This means for women in perimenopause, it’s particularly important to schedule time for yourself; you will be in a better frame of mind, once your stress level is reduced.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a feeling of unease. It is constantly there with you. Just about everybody experiences a form of anxiety when faced with a stressful situation. This feeling of anxiousness may hit you before an exam or an interview, or during a worrisome time such as illness. It is normal to feel anxious when facing something difficult or dangerous. All in all, mild anxiety can be a positive and useful experience, when you know how to use it as an ally.
However, for many people, anxiety interferes with normal life. Excessive anxiety is often associated with other psychiatric conditions, one being depression. Anxiety is considered abnormal when it is prolonged or severe, it happens in the absence of a stressful event, or it is interfering with everyday activities such as going to work. This is also called “acute anxiety disorder”. This is not the type of anxiety I’m speaking about here. If your experience with anxiety is interfering with your everyday activities, tending to your own self, your home, your work responsibilities, or other things you are responsible for, please speak to a mental health professional.
The anxiety I’m talking about here is a general sense of angst and a feeling of anxiousness. It is often labeled “anxiety”, but it is not a disease. It is often a series of habitual responses that once interrupted and replaced with more productive habits, what we once labeled “anxiety” disappears.
Anxiety can be brought on in many ways. Obviously, the presence of stress in your life can make you have anxious thoughts. Many people who suffer from anxiety disorders occupy their minds with excessive worry. This can be worrying about anything from relationship issues, to health matters and job problems to world issues.
As one of my mentors states, “Worrying is a form of prayer for things you don’t want.” (Wise words Dr. Joe, wise words.) There can be a positive kind of “worry”, if you will. We’ll call this productive worry. This is the kind of worry that motivates you to do what needs to be done to avoid whatever outcome it is that spins the worry wheel. On the flip side, there’s destructive worry. This is not helpful, it is 100% in the harmful column. This type of worry has you circling the proverbial drain. This type of worry may require an outside assist from a professional or a super-wise friend or a mentor of some type. You know your resources and what you need, there is zero shame in reaching out for an assist.
Now performance anxiety is related to specific situations, like asking for the sale, making a presentation in public or interviewing for a new gig. This isn’t necessarily something to be concerned with until, and unless it paralyzes you from taking action. Then it warrants a deeper look.
Your Coping Mechanism May Be Your Poison
Certain drugs, both recreational and medicinal, can also lead to symptoms of anxiety due to either side effects or withdrawal from the drug. Such drugs include caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, cold remedies, and decongestants, bronchodilators for asthma, tricyclic antidepressants, cocaine, amphetamines, diet pills, ADHD medications, and thyroid medications. Sometimes the very thing you’re using to try to “calm the stress” is amplifying it. It opens the door for an often vicious cycle to unfurl.
Let me touch on alcohol a bit more for a minute, wine specifically. I can speak from personal experience, wine is an over-used, under-cautioned means with which we “deal with” life especially as women in perimenopause. We call it “winding down”, or “taking the edge off”. And I’ll tell you this, when I abstain, like I am now in January 2022, it is more noticeable the subtle and not so subtle drinking culture that is all around me. Every single social event has alcohol as a central theme, unless it is early in the morning which has another socially acceptable drug at its nexus, caffeine. And now that I think of it, sugar. I won’t get side-tracked, but thought this would be a good topic to broach in this post.
A poor diet can contribute to stress, and/or anxiety — for example, a diet heavy in processed food and drink results in low levels of nutrients we need to absorb from what we ingest. It most likely falls short on protein (amino acids), healing fats (fatty acids) and good ol’ H2O as well.
While anxiety may seem a bit scary, what’s even scarier is that excessive anxiety and stress can lead to depression. Suffering from depression can be a lifelong struggle as you may well know, but the good news is that all of this is manageable!
Take a moment to take your pulse, so to speak. Given the information I just shared, are you suffering from too much stress, excessive anxiety, or might you be teetering on the edge of something more destructive to your wellbeing?
Consider how stocked your resilience repertoire is. Give a number value (on a scale of 1-10) to your place along the resilience continuum. One (1) is “What resilience repertoire? I’m a revolving Hot Mess,” and ten (10) is “I’ve got this resilience thing wired. Ain’t nothing gonna break-a my stride.” I know…Doc, keep your day job. I will, I’ve got zero American Idol aspirations!
Learn more about what we’re up to in my community of rebellious midlife women HERE. I am offering our founding members access to my “Building Resilience in Midlife” course to assist them in stocking their resilience repertoire.