​What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

Stress and Anxiety

The difference between stress and anxiety might be tricky to spot from the outside. Both conditions have many symptoms in common:

Difficulty sleeping. Trouble concentrating. Easily getting tired. Being spiky or quick to anger.

There are even physical symptoms like headaches and tense muscles which both conditions share.

However, the difference between anxiety and stress can be quite obvious to people who are suffering from them...

But if you are and they're not, this article should tell you everything you need to know:

Stressed Man in front of Laptop

What is stress?

Stress is your body's fight or flight reflex. That's why this is also known as the “stress response”.

Stress happens in response to a certain trigger – something which your brain has identified as a threat.

It is generally short-lived.

The positive side of stress (yes, there is one – sort of)

Stress is useful from an evolutionary survival standpoint. It can give you the heightened abilities to overcome dangerous situations:

You have higher blood pressure so that oxygen reaches your muscles more quickly. Your heart rate goes up and you tend to have a slightly improved reaction time. You also need to eat and sleep less.

When faced with a threatening situation, your stress response might just be the difference between your survival and otherwise...

The negative side of stress

On the downside, when stress is triggered too often or in situations where it isn't useful it can lead to all kinds of serious problems.

These symptoms are mainly physical. Mostly, they're caused by the physical changes which the stress response is designed to induce not being required just then and lingering for a prolonged time.

What are the symptoms of stress?

Some of the most common symptoms of stress are:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Light-headed or faint spells (a result of blood pressure changes)
  • Sweaty extremities (usually palms and the souls of your feet)
  • Difficulty remembering things
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Tense and aching muscles (especially in the back and neck areas)
  • Racing thoughts
  • Irritability
  • Loss of energy
  • Lower sex drive

If it is left untreated for longer periods, stress can result in depression, cardiovascular problems (including heart attacks), obesity, hypertension...

As well as anxiety.


What is anxiety?

Anxiety – sometimes known as generalised anxiety disorder in addition to a variety of other specific conditions such as social anxiety, panic disorder, various phobias, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ) – is usually characterised by excessive worry relating to events and their anticipated impact.

In order to be diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, a person must usually have more days where they feel anxious in a six-month period than days they don't.

As opposed to the short, sharp bursts of stress, anxiety is not generally short-lived. It can also be triggered by events or the thought of events. But it does not necessarily fade when the event is over or dealt with.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

The most common symptoms of anxiety are:

  • A level of worry which you find difficult to control
  • A constant feeling of being on-edge
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irritability
  • Tense and aching muscles
  • Loss of energy
  • A heightened startle response
  • Psychosomatic symptoms like headaches, gastrointestinal problems, dizziness and even pins and needles

Many of these symptoms will occur at such a level that they cause an individual serious problems in social situations, at work and school and in other parts of their life too.

What is the difference between stress and anxiety

As you can see from the lists above, the difference between stress and anxiety is sometimes difficult to see from the symptoms alone.

Yet there are obvious differences between the two:

1. Stress: is usually triggered by an external cause. This might be a certain situation at work or being stuck in traffic, for example. It tends to be shorter-lived. When the cause of the trigger disappears, stress can subside.

2. Anxiety: is usually triggered by an internal cause. It tends to be related to internal concerns – usually about external events which may be the causes of stress – the worry about which cannot be controlled. However, it may often be that it is the perception of these events which is threatening rather than the actual events themselves. With anxiety, even after the specific trigger has passed, the anxiety can remain. As most sufferers know, one of the potential triggers of anxiety is their own anxiety.

Woman Relaxing with Headphones

The relationship between stress and anxiety

Stress is a very common trigger for anxiety.

This means that figuring out strategies for handling or reducing your stress levels can prevent the later onset of anxiety and possibly, eventually an anxiety disorder.

There is a huge range of strategies which you can try to manage your stress, including:

1. Physical activity: going for long walks or taking up running, swimming, a new sport or going to the gym can all help reduce stress levels.

2. Meditation: many people gain a great deal from meditation. There are all sorts of handy apps and gadgets you can get which can guide you through how to meditate. There are also classes available in most areas, plus related disciplines like tai chi and yoga.

3. Getting more time to yourself: people – especially those who can't quite manage meditation due to things like time constraints – will benefit from taking a few minutes extra to themselves each day. Try playing some relaxing tunes or getting one of those devices which simulate a relaxing environment.

4. Getting more sleep: any action you can take to improve the quantity and quality of sleep you get will be beneficial.

5. Taking time to connect with other people or nature: getting away from it all into some green space or spending some time with friends talking about things are great stress relievers.

If you are really struggling with stress, it's worth talking to your doctor.

But, whatever you decide to do, it's a good idea to take action now. The difference between stress and anxiety might be said to be little more than a slippery slope leading from one to the other.

Henry Warren I am a professional writer and health & wellness enthusiast.