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Are you anxious or stressed? A psychiatrist explains the difference

It can be helpful to have a good understanding of exactly what is effecting you, so that you can address it.

You have the activewear. You have the equipment. You make a mean smoothie. But if your mind is not in good shape, will you last the distance and achieve your goals?

How we feel is just as important as how we work out when it comes to getting results. That’s why Dr Sarah Vohra, a Consultant Psychiatrist, is joining my FIT Team to help get our minds as strong as our bodies!

Sarah has specialised in mental health for over 10 years and is passionate about sharing her expertise in an easily accessible way. She’ll help us to debunk the myths around mental health, and provide practical tools to look after our mental wellbeing.

Because there’s been so much of it in the air in 2020, I thought I’d start by asking Sarah to explain the difference between stress and anxiety, and how we can cope with them.

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Q: What is stress and why do we experience it?

Put simply, stress is our mind and body’s response to external pressures. Being faced with a new challenge, experiencing change, or feeling as though we have lost control – these situations can overwhelm us and make us feel ‘stressed’. It is important to be aware that we are all individuals and what might be a stressful experience for you may not be the case for someone else.

Q: What are the telltale signs of stress?

Stress can show itself physically (through changes in your body or the way you behave) or mentally. You may experience physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, muscle aches and pains, struggling to sleep or change in appetite, to name a few. It may affect the way you think and feel. You might feel on edge, more irritable than normal. You may struggle to focus or unwind.

Q: Should we try to ‘power through’ stress?

It might be tempting to push on through, particularly if you’ve got deadlines to meet or there is an expectation placed on you, but pushing through may actually lead to more difficulties. In the short term, it may lead to constant worry, procrastination, difficulty sleeping and worsening physical symptoms, but in the long term, chronic stress can mean you are more susceptible to developing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders. It can even increase your risk of physical health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

Q: Anxiety can sometimes come on without a trigger – what is it and why do we get it?

It is important to recognise that anxiety is a normal human emotion. Anxiety, or feeling worried or fearful ahead of trying out a new style of training, facing a new challenge at work or expecting a baby may actually be a positive – forcing you to prepare, plan ahead and avoid becoming complacent. When we are faced with something that makes us feel worried or fearful, our body’s sympathetic nervous system initiates the fight or flight response, preparing the body to act.

Q: What are the symptoms of anxiety?

The symptoms of anxiety are not too dissimilar to those when we are stressed. It can affect how we think, feel and act. You might experience physical or bodily sensations. In fact, when your sympathetic nervous system activates, it leads to the release of adrenaline in your bloodstream which can cause your heart to race faster, which you feel as palpitations. (This is your heart sending blood to your legs in case you need to run away!) You may also notice your breathing becomes faster and shallower. Anxiety can also affect your mood – you might feel flat or down. If anxiety persists and impacts your daily life, that may be an indication that it’s an anxiety disorder.

Q: What happens if we listen to our anxiety and let it rule us?

Some people try to avoid certain situations they know will bring on anxiety – like being in a crowded place. While this may be a short-term relief, continuing to avoid anxious situations may in fact make you more fearful of them. You may find yourself even more consumed with worry, experiencing more physical symptoms, and constantly opting out of life experiences because of the ‘fear’ it will bring on anxiety.

Q: How do we know when it’s time to seek help for stress or anxiety?

We will all experience stress and anxiety across our lifetime. For most of us, it will only affect us in the short term and won’t impact our ability to live our lives, connect with others or do our job. However, if you are constantly feeling stressed or anxious and you are experiencing worsening physical and emotional symptoms that affect your ability to look after yourself, your relationships or your career then it is important to seek advice from your doctor.

You can follow Dr Sarah on Instagram and Twitter.

Emily Skye is a personal trainer and mother of two who founded health & fitness program – Emily Skye FIT – the culmination of years of hard work, self-discovery, entering motherhood and realising that the best thing you can be is strong and happy. Follow her on Instagram.