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Stress vs. Anxiety: What Are The Differences, and How Can it Be Treated?

Stress and anxiety are experienced by millions of people daily. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they represent distinct emotional and physiological states that differ from one another. Understanding the differences between stress and anxiety is crucial for effective management.  


Functional medicine offers a unique approach to dealing with stress and anxiety. Functional Medicine treats the mind and body as interconnected systems, each dependent on the other.


Resilience Health and Wellness in Bellingham, Washington, helps patients understand the differences between stress and anxiety and how naturopathy can treat the two conditions.


Stress: The Body's Immediate Response

Stress is a natural response to a perceived threat or demand.  This triggers the body's "fight or flight" mechanism. It's a physiological reaction that prepares the body to confront or escape from a challenging situation. When faced with stress, the body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.  The release of these hormones raises the heart rate, sharpens focus, and increases energy levels, enabling a person to adequately respond to the situation that's responsible for their stress.


The sources of stress can be diverse, ranging from work deadlines and financial pressures to relationship issues. In most cases, stress is only a short-term reaction, and once the stressor is removed or resolved, the body returns to its normal state.


Anxiety: The Prolonged State of Apprehension

Unlike stress, anxiety is characterized by a prolonged state of worry, fear, or apprehension. It extends beyond the immediate stressor, persisting for an extended period even in the absence of an apparent threat. Anxiety can manifest in various forms, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, or social anxiety disorder.  


Though each of these conditions is slightly different, they often generate a heightened state of alertness similar to stress.  The difference is that anxiety often lacks a specific trigger and can have a profound impact on our daily lives. Individuals experiencing anxiety may have difficulty controlling their thoughts, leading to excessive worry and sometimes physical symptoms like muscle tension, fatigue, and sleep disturbances.  Since anxiety triggers are often harder to find, determining a root cause along with an effective remedy may be more challenging.


The Key Differences Between Stress and Anxiety

Some of the key differences between stress and anxiety include the duration of the stressor, the response by the individual’s body, and the intensity seen as a result.  With stress, the duration is typically a short-term response with an identifiable stressor.  Anxiety, however, involves a prolonged state of unease or duress.  The body’s response to a stimulus is also very different in stress as compared to anxiety. 


Stress is a reaction to a specific threat or demand, while anxiety can arise without a trigger that is easily identified. Another key difference between stress and anxiety is that stress tends to be more intense but short-lived. In contrast, anxiety can be lower in intensity but persistent, sometimes with what seems like an unforeseeable end for the individual.


Functional Medicine's Role in Stress and Anxiety Management

Functional Medicine takes a holistic approach to treating health issues, addressing the underlying causes of a condition rather than merely alleviating symptoms. In the context of stress and anxiety, this involves distinguishing and diagnosing between the two conditions to provide effective treatment. This includes examining various factors such as genetics, lifestyle, nutrition, and environmental influences to find the root cause of the ailment.  


Functional medicine physicians, specifically ones who specialize in naturopathy, help to identify appropriate lifestyle changes that enable the body to better respond to the situations that can trigger stress and anxiety.


Nutrition

Functional Medicine recognizes that mental health is affected by diet. Nutrient deficiencies, imbalances, or sensitivities can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety.  For example, spikes and drops in blood sugar can cause energy crashes and mood swings.  Adequate vitamins and minerals are crucial for supporting the nervous system and energy metabolism.  Deficiencies can contribute to heightened sensitivity to everyday stress.  Adjusting one's diet to include essential nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids, and amino acids through protein-rich foods plays essential roles in mood regulation, calming overall anxiety.


Body-Brain Connection 

The body and brain are intricately connected, and imbalances in physical health can contribute to mental health issues. For instance, the gut and brain are connected through communication pathways. Functional Medicine practitioners often explore the role of the gut microbiome, the trillions of microorganisms residing in the human gut, since issues like dysbiosis and inflammation can influence mental well-being.  Even something as simple as being hungry can trigger heightened stress responses.  


Hormones play a crucial role in regulating cognitive and emotional responses. Functional Medicine aims to identify and correct hormonal imbalances that may contribute to chronic anxiety. This can involve assessing cortisol levels and thyroid function.  Imbalances in cortisol and thyroid levels can cause anxiety resilience, disrupting the body's natural ability to regulate psychological responses and alleviating anxiety.


Lifestyle Modifications

Functional Medicine emphasizes lifestyle modifications to promote the body's natural healing mechanisms. These can include sleep therapies, targeted exercises, and stress management techniques. Adequate sleep, regular physical activity, and stress-reducing practices like mindfulness and meditation can help relieve stress and anxiety.  


One of the hallmarks of Functional Medicine is its personalized approach. Recognizing that each individual and their condition is unique, practitioners develop customized treatment plans based on a thorough understanding of the patient's history, genetics, and lifestyle.  This personalized approach can make implementing and maintaining lifestyle modifications easier.


Navigating Your Body’s Responses

While stress and anxiety share some similarities, they represent distinct states with different durations, triggers, and impacts on mental well-being. Functional Medicine offers a holistic approach to managing stress and anxiety by addressing underlying factors, correctly treating, and promoting overall health. Its goal is to empower individuals in their journey toward mental well-being through personalized interventions in nutrition, gut health, hormonal balance, and lifestyle modifications.


If you are faced with the difficulty of handling day-to-day stressors or have prolonged feelings of anxiousness, contact Resilience Health and Wellness for a consultation.  Dr. Camille and the staff at Resilience can help distinguish between stress and anxiety and diagnose and guide the healing of your mind and body.

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