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Stress and anxiety - What is the difference?

I think it’s safe to assume that most of us have experienced stress in one form or another, whether it’s a deadline at work, an argument with a relative or an important decision. The constricting, chest-pressing fear can feel constant and can put us into a state of unease.

With stressful elements constantly filling our minds, it can be difficult to sort out how we’re feeling, and more importantly, what level of stress we’re experiencing.

Since it’s human nature to exaggerate, often we claim we feel something more than we actually do. At this stage, statements (often inaccurate) such as “This situation is giving me anxiety” and “This whole thing is going to make me have a panic attack” are often made.

Stress can trigger anxiety, and anxiety can be a symptom of extreme stress.

So how can we tell when our stress is actually leading to these conditions?


Well, whilst the line between stress and anxiety often gets blurred, there are distinct things to be aware of — including how these emotions affect the body and the root causes of each of them.

Whether you’re tense or suffering from something additional, the stressful and anxious emotions can sometimes bring the same feelings of arousal. Stressful or anxious emotions speed up our heart beats, trigger rapid breathing and cause muscle tension. They're both the negative emotional experiences that can make you feel exhausted and edgy, steal your focus, and leave you spending your nights sleepless and frantic.  The similarities diminish when anxiety yields to a panic attack, which brings about more severe versions of the symptoms, including chills, headaches, hot flashes and chest pains.

While there is definite overlap between stress and anxiety, ultimately the two emotions come from two different places. With stress, we know what’s worrying us but with anxiety you become less aware of what you’re anxious about [in the moment] and the reaction becomes the problem. You start to feel anxious about being anxious.

Fears, such as phobias of events, activities or social situations are all rooted in terror, causing the person suffering from the disorder to panic when they come face-to-face with that stressor.  Anxiety is like a snowball.  Anxiety converts fear into feelings and people who suffer from it tend to avoid what’s making them fearful, which can make it worse.

Often, constant fear of the unknown will leave you crippled with anxiety. In order to overcome that fear, it is suggested to address the fear head-on, then taking steps from there.  Remember that calming your anxiety is not one bit related to whether something unexpected happens or not.  Calming your anxiety is about only that: calming your anxiety. The crazy train of fear prevents you from being present to what is, and it most definitely keeps you from enjoying what is here in this moment.

When it comes to stress, you know what you’re dealing with — an overhanging deadline, unpaid bills, picking up the kids etc.  It’s these outside stressors that we are able prioritising and handled one at a time.

It’s a good idea to dismiss any thoughts of multitasking in order to manage stress and to let go of the idea that you need to solve everything.  It’s always a good idea to figure out what you can do about things and what you can’t. Take on the things you can do something about and give yourself some credit when you’ve accomplished something.

By definition, anxiety and stress are categorised by separate feelings. The stress we experience in our day-to-day lives is associated with frustration and nervousness, where anxiety often comes from a place of fear, unease and worry (something like impending doom). Still, despite the differences, many people use the terms interchangeably. In a blog post on Psychology Today, psychologist and psychotherapist Harriet Lerner explains why we tend to lump together each phrase pertaining to the emotional response:

In everyday conversation, we use the language of emotions that we’re comfortable with and that fits our psychological complexion. I’ve worked with clients who don’t report feeling anxious or afraid. “I’m incredibly stressed out...” is their language of choice. “Stressed” is the codeword for “totally freaked out” for people who are allergic to identifying and sharing their own vulnerability. Or, at the other linguistic extreme, a woman in therapy tells me that she feels “sheer terror” at the thought that her daughter’s wedding dress will not fit her properly. I know her well enough to translate “sheer terror” into “really, really, worried.” Whatever your emotional vocabulary, no one signs up for anxiety, fear and shame, or for any difficult, uncomfortable emotion. But we can’t avoid these feelings, either.


The key difference stress and anxiety is the sense of helplessness. When it comes to stress, you can deal with things and master them. By rolling up your sleeves and tackling that stress, you can feel less helpless. This is on the case with anxiety.

I think we can summarise the differences as follows:


  • Stress is usually the result of external pressures – we can also say that stress is the reaction to a problem and anxiety is a reaction to the stress. This is not to say that anxiety cannot be a reaction to external stressors.  But essentially, stress is "the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure," while anxiety is "a feeling of unease, worry or fear." (definition from the UK NHS website).  Why is the distinction important? Stress can often be dealt with in a much more practical manner; whereas anxiety may require counselling, medication, or other professional psychological treatment

  • Anxiety tends to linger after the issue is resolved whereas stress doesn’t - the National Institute of Health's U.S. National Library of Medicine says, "Stress is caused by an existing stress-causing factor...[while] anxiety is stress that continues after the stressor is gone." Basically, stress can set off a case of anxiety.  Once again, the distinction is important because although anxiety can definitely be triggered by stress, sustained or chronic anxiety needs to be treated as its own issue, rather than as a by-product of stress. You can't alleviate an anxiety disorder with a holiday or a visit to the spa (no matter what some less enlightened people might tell you).

  • Anxiety involves needles and often irrational worry – although symptoms of stress and anxiety can often overlap and confuse, there is one tell-tale symptom that signals anxiety and only anxiety: a persistent feeling of apprehension or dread in situations that are not threatening. The kind of counselling given to someone coping with a great deal of stress will be quite different than the course of treatment from a person suffering from generalised anxiety disorder.

  • Panic attacks are triggered by anxiety and not stress -  A panic attack is actually a very specific experience of heightened fear of discomfort that often involves sweating, trembling, pounding heartbeat, nausea, chest pain, the sensation of choking, chills, and numbness in the hands or face. A panic attack begins suddenly, and most often peaks within 10 to 20 minutes. Some symptoms continue for an hour or more, and many people go to the emergency room during their first panic attack, because they are convinced that they are having a heart attack or some other deadly health problem — so, yes, it's a very different experience from just feeling a little panicked about having burnt your toast.  If you've experienced a panic attack, that's a sign of anxiety — and a sign that you could benefit from professional help.


No matter which issue you're struggling with, you don't have to deal with it alone. Talk to someone you trust about what you're going through, and know that no matter what you have, you can start feeling better.

If you want more information or need a professional to talk to, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

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