The Differences Between Stress and Anxiety

July 28, 2016

Stress and anxiety are seen as very similar responses and are often confused as they bear a certain resemblance in psychophysiological activation. However, they are different responses and their health implications are also different. Even though both are responses to certain types of situations.

Various anxiety disorders and stress problems generally have negative health impacts. The intensity and duration are the factors that establish the difference between these two responses which initially appear as a defense mechanism.

Excessive activation of stress and anxiety can provoke psychophysiological disorders such as difficulty falling asleep, hypertension, loss of appetite, sexual dysfunction, etc.

The stress response

The stress response gives us more resources to face situations that are unusual. It mobilizes us as an alarm signal to pay attention to what we find to be important.

The stress in our lives in itself is not harmful, it has a basic function for our survival What hurts us is when stress is maintained over large periods of time. This happens when we perceive an environment to be threatening, and make a negative assessment of the skills or resources that we have in order to deal with this situation. This is when our immune system suffers and weakens, and when we become susceptible to health problems and disease.

Our stress response appears before our perception of the situation, of the objective demands of the means, and the resources that we believe we have to meet those demands.

If we have a poor perception of our abilities, we are more likely to experience stress in different situations.

Prolonged stress affects our muscles, increasing our feeling of tiredness, causing muscle spasms, problems sleeping and eating; facilitating the emergence of cardiovascular diseases

prolonged stress

Anxiety response

When body is put in a threatening situation it can provoke a reaction of fear or anxiety. When this activation is maintained for long periods of time without regaining the levels before the onset of the situation, then we would be referring to stress.

For example a student about to take an important exam experiences an increase in activation, produced by anxiety, to put all his energy into what he considers important. If once the test is completed this activation is maintained, from one situation to another; it becomes a maladjusted stress, causing negative consequences for health and further impact on all other areas of his life.

Anxiety manifests as a response that is also adaptive in principle: to give an immediate response to a threatening situation. This is a  situational reaction limited in time, so that anxiety is manifested as a warning with a great intensity. Unlike the alarm response that characterizes stress.

Anxiety is considered an emotional response that has different degrees of activation. Phylogenetically it arises in humans as a defense mechanism to prepare before an important event, whether dangerous or desirable. It is an essential response for survival as a species.

anxiety fear

The difference between anxiety and fear

The difference between this emotional response and fear, lies essentially in that the anxiety occurs with the anticipation of something that can happen, preparing for a change or future threat.

While fear is experienced in response to something in the moment, a present danger, where the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is activated.

Anxiety disorders occur upon activation of certain stimuli that do not constitute a real danger, as in many of phobias. In these cases, there is a disproportionate and maladjusted activation in relation to the environment, since there is no real possibility of physical harm.

The importance of relaxation for stress and anxiety

Learning relaxation and breathing techniques can help us reduce excessive activation, which causes stress and anxiety to appear.

The current pace of the society in which we live can lead to chronic stress and anxiety. So it is essential to employ strategies to calm our minds and physiological arousal.

There are techniques like autogenic training, progressive relaxation, abdominal breathing, biofeedback, etc., which can be used as a personal resource to offset the negative effects of stress and anxiety. They can also serve as a preventive measure to reduce the levels of activation in situations that are no longer threatening.

In times of stress and anxiety, relaxation techniques serve to increase the activity of our autonomous parasympathetic system and decrease the activity of the sympathetic system activation by facilitating balance.

 Thought Patterns That Cause Stress and Anxiety

Stress can be defined differently for each person. It is how we deal with it the way it that … See more »