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The difference between
stress and anxiety

by Christine Byrne

February 28, 2024

Most of us use the words “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably, and there is a lot of crossover between the two. The emotional responses can even strike at the same time.

But stress and anxiety are two different reactions, and understanding how they diverge might be the thing to help you cope. If the responses you have to either stress or anxiety are preventing you from living your life to the fullest, it’s time to evaluate your coping mechanisms and see if there might be some things you can do to ease the pressure and improve your well-being. Here’s what two psychologists say about the differences between stress and anxiety, as well as how to cope. 

The difference between stress and anxiety 

While stress typically has a concrete cause (or causes), the cause of anxiety can be much harder to pinpoint. “Anxiety is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor,” says Shagoon Maurya, a psychologist based in Adelaide, Australia. “It can linger on for a long term and may not have identifiable triggers.” In other words, you might feel anxious without knowing exactly why. 

What makes the distinction a bit confusing is that anxiety is often caused by stress, at least at first. “When stressful thoughts and feelings become chronic, this can mean someone is actually suffering from anxiety or an anxiety disorder, and this is not beneficial,” says Kara Kushnir, a psychotherapist and clinical director at A Work of Heart Counseling

Like stress, some amount of anxiety is normal and nothing to worry about. “If you are experiencing a particularly stressful period of time (i.e. final exams, or a major life change like starting a new job or dealing with an illness) then a higher level of anxiety can be expected,” says Kushnir. 

As long as that anxiety is more episodic and not impacting daily functioning, the feeling of anxiety itself is not particularly concerning — it just means you're aware that you are going through a difficult or important time and you are concerned about it. 

Good stress vs bad stress 

In general, good stress is motivating, while bad stress is limiting. 

“Good stress, also called eustress, gives us an opportunity to enhance our performance, and inspires us to focus our energy on productivity and growth,” says Maurya. This kind of stress happens when we’re excited or about to undertake something new, and it’s actually an important part of growth and optimal functioning. 

 

Bad stress, on the other hand, does the opposite, by making it difficult to get things done. “Bad stress, also called distress, makes us tense and makes it difficult to solve problems,” explains Maurya. This kind of stress response generally happens when external demands like work, school, family and other aspects of life and stressful situations become more than we can handle. Too much of this bad stress over time has a negative impact on both physical and mental health. 

Common symptoms of stress 

“Stress is usually short-termed, caused by situational factors and has identifiable triggers,” says Maurya. She explains that physical symptoms of stress include the following: 

  • Faster heartbeat 

  • Faster breathing 

  • Moodiness, irritability, or anger 

  • General unhappiness 

  • A feeling of being overwhelmed 

  • Loneliness 

  • Nausea 

  • Dizziness 

  • Bowel changes 

Common symptoms of anxiety 

While stress tends to make you feel overwhelmed, anxiety often comes with a sense of dread. According to Maura, any of the following can be common symptoms of anxiety: 

  • Faster heart rate 

  • Faster breathing 

  • A feeling of unease or dread 

  • Sweating 

  • Diarrhea or constipation 

  • Nervousness 

  • Muscle tension 

  • Urge to avoid social situations 

  • Restlessness

When to seek help for stress and anxiety

If you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder or high levels of chronic stress, Maurya says that you might experience panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, avoidance and procrastination, and ongoing fatigue. You might also have a hard time concentrating on tasks, because anxious thoughts consume you.

 

“In cases like this, psychotherapy  and talk therapy to learn stress reduction techniques as well as challenge anxious thoughts or behavior patterns can prove incredibly beneficial to returning to a healthier amount of stress,” explains Kushnir. Therapy can help you develop coping mechanisms such as breathing exercises, physical activity, and other relaxation techniques, which can can lower your levels of stress. 

Ultimately, though stress and anxiety are normal parts of daily life, it's also understandable if you’re having trouble dealing with them. While stress is a direct response to something external, anxiety is caused by ongoing stress over time and occurs even when there’s not a specific cause. If either one has become a problem for you, the best thing to do is seek help from a qualified therapist or mental health professional. 

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