Stress Awareness: Stress vs anxiety

Anne Balls

Stress at university

Last week we looked into how stressed UK university students really are. We also looked at the distinction between good and bad stress, and the most effective ways we can provide help for university students when they experience stress.

This Stress Awareness Month is a perfect time to dig even deeper than that on the issue of stress at university. Yes, we should be mindful of good vs bad stress, but another misconceived term is anxiety. Stress and anxiety are linked, but not the same thing.

To provide the best help for university students, we should help them to clearly know the difference between experiencing stress and suffering with an anxiety disorder. With knowledge, they should feel empowered to take appropriate steps to care for themselves.

What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

MIND charity says that there’s no medical definition of stress and it can be difficult to describe exactly what it is. We do know that stress is what we feel in events that put us under pressure.

Stress is part of everyone’s life. “Healthy stress” can help us feel motivated and energised to get things done. However when stress becomes overwhelming, this can lead to mental health problems or make existing problems worse.

The main difference between stress and anxiety is that stress is a response to threat in a situation. Anxiety is a reaction to the stress (ADAA, 2016).

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. Most of us experience anxiety from time to time which is completely normal. However, when the feeling of anxiety is constant, affects our daily life, or if the sufferer is not able to control their worries, this can become a mental health problem (NHS Choices, 2016).

One of the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorders is Generalised Anxiety Disorder. It is a long-term condition that causes people to feel anxious about a wide range of issues rather than one specific situation. It is characterised by persistent, excessive and unrealistic worry about everyday things (AADA, 2016).

Other common anxiety disorders include social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and OCD (Mind, 2017).

Help for university students: knowing the symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety UK says that the common physical symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rate, dry mouth, hot flushes, increased perspiration, tingling in the hands and feet, “jelly legs”, dizziness, tension headaches and feeling sick.

Common psychological symptoms of anxiety include:

  • thinking you may lose control, have a heart attack, faint, or die
  • feeling that other people are noticing your anxiety
  • feeling like you want to run away from the situation
  • feeling on edge and alert to everything around you

A Murphy and Fongay study notes that anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders. Young people are particularly vulnerable to anxiety and depression. The study estimates that 75% of mental illness in adult life (excluding dementia) starts by age 18. In the UK, 19.4% of people aged 16-24 show symptoms of depression or anxiety, compared to 17.3% of the general population aged 18-64. Prevalence is higher among women (20.1%) than men (14.3%) (ONS, 2017).

Help for university students: seeking help when needed

Living with anxiety is challenging, especially for university students. Academic workload, pressure of assignments, revision and exams, juggling studies with work and living away from loved ones certainly don’t make it any easier.

If anxiety is affecting daily life or causing distress, students should see their GP. A GP will be able to offer diagnosis and treatment. Students should talk to people they trust. And not forget that there’s plenty of help available through charities which specialise in mental health disorders, such as Mind. We mustn’t underestimate the importance of self-help. There are many techniques students can use to manage or reduce anxiety. On our Unihealth programme, we encourage students to look after their physical health, try some breathing exercises, keep a diary and to use peer support. MIND charity recommends that complementary and alternative therapies can help, too.

The key thing is for students to not be embarrassed about how they are feeling. Even if all friends seem to be happy and their lives seem stress-free, chances are that probably quite a few of them might have experienced or are experiencing anxiety.

To students suffering with anxiety: you are not alone in what you’re going through and you don’t have to suffer in silence. Seek help if you need it.