Stress vs. Anxiety: What’s the Difference?

The world has become both more stressed out and anxious. There are seemingly endless tasks to complete and everyone experiences the pressure of short deadlines. Working long hours, keeping up with social obligations and constantly having bad news delivered through 24-hour networks makes is very hard to relax.

The words stress and anxiety are thrown around a lot, given our environment. But even though anxiety and stress are often experienced together, are these two emotions the same? How do we deal with them?

Stress and anxiety are not the same things. This article will cover what counts as stress vs. anxiety and how they are different.


Stress is a specific response to an external stimulus. It manifests as a physical response, often the fight-or-flight response. This stress response is what the body adopts when the mind believes it is under threat. The word stress is often used to describe a variety of feelings: anger, concern, worry or being overwhelmed.

Adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine are known as the stress hormones. These hormones are released during stress and speed up your breathing and your heart rate. They also provide a sudden burst of energy during stressful situations. A stressful situation could be nearly anything that your mind interprets as a possible threat to your well being. This can include things like an intense workout or a serious emergency. Either one is a stress and will trigger a fight-or-flight response.

The mind is not very good at distinguishing between benign situations and genuinely dangerous ones. Most people regularly stress over situations that don’t pose any real threat. The situation might call for some concern, but rarely high alert. When your body goes into fight-or-flight mode in reaction to a non-life threatening situation, it takes blood flow away from your brain and redirects it to the muscles it thinks you will need to run away or fight back. This is why many people have a hard time thinking straight under stress.

When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to many complications. Being stressed out all of the time can lead to chest pain, heart palpitations, headaches, high blood pressure, depression, insomnia and skin irritation. There is even research showing a link between chronic stress and gut issues, such as stomach pain and diarrhea.

Stress is a threat to your physical and mental health. But how does it differ from anxiety?


In simple terms, anxiety is a feeling of fear or apprehension which occupies your mind. The mental symptoms are usually more pronounced than the physical ones, but these physical symptoms can still be quite severe.

Feelings of anxiety can be triggered by nearly any situation in daily life. A presentation at work or having to catch up to a bus during rush hour can both provoke anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Feeling nervous or restless
  • A sense of impending doom
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hyperventilation
  • Weakness
  • Excessive worry
  • Trouble sleeping

Anxiety is often linked to an obvious external stressor, but sometimes it can arise for no apparent reason. Anxious feelings often stick around even after the source of anxiety is long gone. If you feel a general unease about the future or are worried about the state of the world, it’s likely you’re dealing with anxious feelings.

When anxiety takes over your life, it can be classified as one of several types of disorders. If your symptoms last for a long period of time and are severe enough to interfere with your daily life, it’s likely you’re dealing with a generalized anxiety disorder.

Stress vs. Anxiety

Stress vs. Anxiety

The differences between stress and anxiety are subtle.

Anxiety arises due to internal worries. You might be worried about how a promotion will affect your life, and jump to conclusions about what your future might look like.

Stress is triggered by external situations. For example, if your boss recently yelled at you for messing up at work, you’ll feel stressed.

The key difference between anxiety and stress is that anxiety involves excessive worry, even when you have no reason to believe the worst will happen.

There is a lot of overlap between anxiety and stress. Your stress pours over into anxiety when it doesn’t dissipate. Or you can get anxious about stressful situations recurring. Some people are so impacted by stress that they may feel anxiety over the initial stressor for weeks or months after the stressor is long gone.

Not everyone will feel anxious after a stressful event has happened. Differences in brain chemistry and genetic makeup can influence how people handle stress. In one study, those who had neuroflexibility in their prefrontal cortex were less likely to develop toxic coping methods like binge drinking, and felt less anxious overall.

Stress is a reasonable reaction to unpleasant situations. If you’re in a mountain of debt, are experiencing some difficulties in your relationship, or have reason to expect a natural disaster, it’s perfectly understandable to feel stress. The issue with stress is if it is chronic. Same with anxiety. Anxiety is justified in many situations, but not on a consistent basis.

Why do stress and anxiety get confused?

One of the biggest reasons that stress and anxiety are often confused is that anxiety stems from stress. The two are so closely related that they can seem like different names for the same issue.

Stress and anxiety also have similar physical symptoms. Both lead to faster heartbeats, rapid breathing and tense muscles. When experienced over a long period of time, chronic stress and chronic anxiety can lead to gastrointestinal issues, heart disease and a compromised immune system.

Most importantly, stress and anxiety are both unpleasant and they both make life equally negative. If things feel the same, they often seem like the same thing.

Know the Difference to Move Forward

It’s possible for someone to feel stressed and anxious. The two often go together. Understanding the difference between the two will help you to figure out the best way to reduce your stress or anxiety levels and get back to a better state of life. If you can identify that you’re dealing with anxiety, and not stress, you’ll be in a better position to seek help and start recovering sooner.

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Anxiety, Spire, Stress

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