Do You Know the Difference Between Anxiety and Stress?

March 22, 2018

Although anxiety and stress are very similar conditions, they also have their differences. People often use the terms as synonyms, but they aren’t the same. Knowing how to identify one or the other isn’t a simple theoretical exercise. It is real life experience that helps us more accurately define the intensity or seriousness of these issues. 

Added to the difficulty of defining the differences between the two is the fact that there are many types of stress and anxiety. Sometimes we classify them based on the intensity of symptoms. For example, psychologists talk about chronic stress or general anxiety. Other times, we classify based on the source or cause. Some examples are workplace stress or abandonment anxiety.

“Scientific truth may be put briefly; eat moderately, having an ordinary mixed diet, and don’t worry.”

-Robert Hutchison-

Nevertheless, all kinds of stress share some common elements, and the same goes for all types of anxiety. To clarify, let’s look at some of the main differences between stress and anxiety.

Anxiety and stress have different origins

In the case of stress, the cause is easily identifiable. Stress happens when a person doesn’t (or believes he doesn’t) have the resources to face a problem. The same happens when there is a task or any activity that must be carried out.

butterfly pulling stone

Anxiety, on the other hand, has a more vague origin. You often can’t identify the relevant threat or danger. In fact, in many cases there isn’t an objective reason for the person’s unease. Despite the lack of a specific cause, he or she still experiences anxiety. On the other hand, anxiety is very sensitive to conditioning and anticipation. It can be the result of stress or pressure.

Prevailing emotions

Another element that differentiates anxiety and stress is the prevailing emotions or feelings. Stress implies worry. We can define it as a blend of nervousness and frustrationIt can include irritability and sometimes sadness as well.

The prevailing emotion or feeling that accompanies anxiety, on the other hand, is fear. It is a feeling of imminent danger that tends to snowball. We describe it as an invasive emotion that spreads and lasts. It causes a lot of harm to a person’s mood and state of mind. Fear leads to bewilderment, and even mental blocks and paralysis in serious cases.

Triggering factors

In general terms, stress arises from external factors. Anxiety, on the other hand, is caused by internal factors. They aren’t always easy to differentiate. What makes the difference in each case is the presence or absence of an outside stimulus.

Specific incidents or situations trigger stress. It might happen at work, while doing a difficult task, because of displacement from a specific place, etc. Anxiety, on the other hand, is often triggered by the individual. They create and feed catastrophic thoughts and distressing feelings. It doesn’t really matter what is actually going on around them.

Perception of time

Stress is too much of the present, while anxiety is too much of the future. For someone who is stressed, the present moment seems infinite. They don’t believe that they can get out of the current situation. They feel trapped and can’t see any way to change what worries them. It is like they are condemned to eternally suffer the impact of whatever triggered the stress.

women with anxiety and stress

With anxiety, the person is afraid of what could happen but hasn’t happened yet. Or maybe something did happen, but they can’t do anything about it. So often, they don’t even know what the “something” is. They just anticipates every catastrophic and negative thing that could happen. The anxious person can’t objectively evaluate their present situation. They live according to the terrible thing that is on the horizon or has already happened. They obsesses on possible consequences without being able to affect them.

Disappearance of symptoms

If a person’s stress trigger is going to the dentist, once they go, their unease will dissipate. This is a distinctive trait of stress – it goes away once the stimulus is gone or the conflict is resolved.

Anxiety tends to perpetuate itself. Using the example from before, if a person is anxious about the dentist, the anxiety won’t go away after the visit. They might imagine that they could lose all their teeth. Another anxious thought is that they are experiencing a symptom of a much worse problem that is just beginning. Anxiety feeds on a negative and overactive imagination.

man in clouds

If you are able to recognize the similarities and difference between anxiety and stress, you can better identify what is bothering you. We recommend you seek help for prolonged stress. Stress over a long period means you aren’t able to solve a conflict that is doing you harm. We also recommend that you consult a professional if you believe you have problems with anxiety, that vague fear that has no end or beginning.