What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

Jason Brien.

Stress and anxiety are similar but different concepts, reactions or responses despite how often the two terms are used interchangeably. There are two forms of stress (acute vs chronic) and two types of anxiety (typical vs atypical – anxiety disorders). Let us start by looking at stress. Stress is your body’s way of responding to external threats and demands which cause physical, emotional or psychological strain. When we appraise a threat “There is a lion”, our stress response activates the survival mechanisms known as ‘fight’, ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ responses (others may also add fawn response). Our flight, fight or fight response (FFF) prepares our body physiologically to deal with the threat.

The FFF response makes our heart beat faster and makes us breath more rapidly so as to increase the blood and oxygen flowing to our muscles. This increased blood flow helps us to fight. Or run. Or freeze. Our body is also flooded with adrenaline hormones, our digestion system stops, our pupils dilate) allowing us to scan our environment better) and we may start sweating. Once the lion is appraised as either no longer being a threat (it moves away from us, we get away from it, we overcame it in battle, etc) or as a mischaracterised threat (“Oops… that was a dog not a lion”), the stress response STOPS and REVERSES. Our heart and breathing rate return to normal. The adrenaline hormones stop being released and everything else returns to its pre-threat baseline state.

The acute-stress response is immediate and intense. The word 'acute' means the symptoms develop quickly but do not usually last long. The acute stress response occurs if the lion only appears once and 20 minutes later you have completely forgotten about it or the encounter no longer bothers you. In the modern world, acute stress is having an argument with a loved one. Someone saying something mean to you. Acute stress is easier to manage because the threat usually goes away quite quickly. Chronic stress on the other hand is long-term stress. It is the equivalent of encountering the lion every single day. In the modern world, chronic stress is poverty or financial challenges. It is repeated and consistent relationship problems and arguments or continually working in a toxic workplace. Chronic stress is stress which is experienced over and over again.

Acute stress is more episodic. There is space and time between threats. Symptoms of acute stress include anxiety, irritability, mood shifts, poor concentration, sleep problems, etc. Symptoms of chronic stress can include anxiety, depression, agitation, insomnia, anger, loneliness or isolation among other symptoms. Did you notice that anxiety is a common symptom of both acute stress and chronic stress? This is because when we are stressed, we are also likely to become anxious. The two occur together which leads people to believe that they are the same. Anxiety is an emotional or cognitive RESPONSE to the stress. Anxiety involves worry, concern, fear, doubt, unease or nervousness about how the stress or stressor is going to affect you (the lion, the toxic boss, etc).

Since stress and/or the stressor can affect you in many ways, the ambiguousness leads you to question various aspects of the stress response and the stressor. For example, you appraise a threat “Oh, there’s a lion”. Your stress response triggers automatically influencing all that we describe previously and then your anxiety kicks in. Anxiety plays out in the form of “What if I can’t beat the lion and my friends call me weak”? “What if the lion gets too close and I pee my pants”? Anxiety causes you to worry about events WHICH HAVE NOT YET OCCURRED. The symptoms of anxiety are somewhat similar to those of the stress response which is why people get the two concepts confused.

Like the stress response though, once the lion has been appraised as no longer being a threat (for whatever reason - it runs away, you run away, etc), typical anxiety also stops. You stop worrying about what MIGHT have occurred during your encounter with the lion. Your heart and breathing rate return back to normal. Anxiety within the context of the modern world may occur before having to sit for an exam. It may occur when there is an unresolved conflict with a work colleague. It may occur within the context of a toxic or unhealthy relationship. Typical anxiety becomes atypical when its symptoms shift towards the extreme end. Worry or apprehension becomes intense and immobilizing fear. Slight irritability or anger becomes pronounced irritability or anger.

In the simplest of terms, atypical anxiety lasts for much longer (even after the stressor – the lion- has gone away, been beaten, etc) and significantly interferes with your daily living. Atypical anxiety is not leaving your house because yesterday or a week ago you encountered a lion and to make sure you don’t encounter another lion; it is best that you stay within the safety of your home. Typical anxiety in social settings is being aware of how others perceive us or have the potential to judge us but not allowing that awareness to prevent us from socializing. Atypical anxiety allows this awareness to become hyperinflated and exaggerated and so leads us to start avoiding ALL social interactions just in case we are judged.

Anytime that we don’t manage typical anxiety properly, it has the potential to be transformed into atypical anxiety. Typical anxiety is like a dangerous dog which needs to be muzzled and kept on a short leash. If you don’t manage the dangerous dog properly, it has the potential to do some damage. Typical anxiety is easily managed through deep breathing or relaxation techniques which lower our breathing and heart rate. We may also challenge or replace the negative and intrusive thoughts we may be having. In both a stress and anxiety response, we may use reality testing or cognitive reframing to ensure that we have properly appraised the threat. Is it a lion or is it actually a dog? Did my boss get someone to help me because I need support or because they are looking to fire me?

Finding ways to manage both stress and anxiety is extremely important. MANAGE is the keyword though. We never want to eliminate stress or typical anxiety. When they are managed properly and effectively, they serve a useful function. They both prevent fearlessness and impulsiveness which can get us into trouble if we are not careful. Chronic stress and atypical anxiety hijack our arousal system and constantly triggers it into action even when it is not necessary to do so. When chronic stress and atypical anxiety takes over, it lowers our susceptibility to further stress and anxiety. This is why mental health professionals suggest reducing the stressors in your life. By removing as many stresses and anxiety provoking people, events and situations as possible (by managing your environment), you have a much greater chance of getting on top of things.