The 4 Differences Between Stress and Anxiety

Do you know the main differences between anxiety and stress? Find out in this article.
The 4 Differences Between Stress and Anxiety
Leticia Aguilar Iborra

Written and verified by la psicóloga Leticia Aguilar Iborra in 21 April, 2021.

Last update: 21 April, 2021

On many occasions, when we talk about stress and anxiety, we use these two words indifferently to refer to the relentless rhythm of life that we have to live day by day. However, nothing could be further from the truth: stress and anxiety, despite sharing the same topographic factors, vary in their functions.

Anxiety and stress fulfill an adaptation function in the body based on the different demands of the environment. However, this response can often last over time, in some cases becoming counterproductive and making a correct professional approach necessary.

What is stress?

Anxiety and stress produce depression.
When they occur consistently, these feelings can lead to depression.

Stress could be defined as the body’s response to adapt to the circumstances that the environment demands of it. It’s an innate response that helps the person to be safe from any dangers that may arise.

For example, if a person sees a dangerous animal, the person will use all their resources to ensure their safety, activating certain areas of the body to carry this out.

In this way, they activate a defense mechanism that prepares the body for an intense physical fight or flight response. However, some environmental hazards can be contextualized to other demands that don’t always imply a risk to people’s safety.

The stress response can be extrapolated to other areas of life when its resources aren’t capable of solving a certain situation.

The role of cortisol in stress

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HHA) axis for modulation of the stress response. It’s necessary in order to guarantee the body’s chances of survival.

If this substance remains in the body for a long period of time, it can be harmful. This may be somewhat paradoxical to the usefulness of cortisol itself in guaranteeing a response that adapts to the surroundings and situation.

The consequences can be many and varied. Among them, the probability of catching infections and illnesses, such as colds, is usually higher.

In addition, other symptoms such as muscle weakness, chronic fatigue, lack of concentration, and an increased risk of developing autoimmune diseases can occur. However, regarding the latter, the studies are not conclusive.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety, broadly speaking, could be defined as an emotional response derived from stress without the “red flag” that can produce stress in our bodies. Far from being a negative concept, anxiety allows the individual to be prepared for the demands that the environment may demand of him.

Here we can cite the examples of feeling nervous before an important exam or before a job interview. Anxiety, unlike stress, varies, and it all depends on the stimulus that produces it.

In stress, the response to protect the body is usually intuitive, while in anxiety, the response will vary, providing problem-solving resources for the circumstances that the situation demands.

Anxiety disorders

Like stress, which channels fight or flight behavior in the search for safety, and which can become pathological if this response is maintained over time, anxiety goes through similar conditions. These are the cases where the so-called anxiety disorders can appear.

Broadly speaking, these can be classified as follows:

  • Specific phobias
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Generalized anxiety
  • Panic disorder

These disorders are unique to humans. That is, while the response of animals will vary depending on the experience they have had with certain stimuli (such as a dog that rejects large dogs because they’ve been bitten by one), in humans, this behavior will be maintained by conditioned and operant factors.

In humans, apart from maintaining certain anxiety behaviors due to conditional variables, language is also very powerful when relating events to others.

An example here would be a friend who tells that he was mugged in the town square at 10 at night. In this case, the person would ensure that they go through the same area very carefully, or even avoid the area entirely to avoid having a similar experience.

The 4 differences between anxiety and stress

Anxiety and stress can backfire.
Both disorders can significantly impair quality of life.

In summary, the differences between anxiety and stress can be grouped into the following sections:

  1. In stress, the response is usually focused on the guarantee of survival of the organism. Anxiety, despite sharing that functionality, may be more associated with a type of derived emotional response.
  2. Stress takes two forms: It’s called eustress (beneficial stress) when the stress response adapts to the circumstances, and distress when the resources available to the individual aren’t sufficient for the demands of the situation.
  3. It’s more likely that, before removing the stimulus that’s causing the stress response, the stress will disappear.
  4. Anxiety can also lead to more anxiety. Worries about the future, or what might happen, create a mental journey in which it’s difficult to identify the main source of anxiety.

What to do if anxiety and/or stress appear?

Internet search engines abound with recommendations on anxiety breathing techniques and workshops for stress and anxiety management. This may be recommended for people with occasional symptoms.

The downside is that these anxiety and stress patterns can take a long time to disappear, and so these recommendations are a way to try to control these events.

Thus, attempts to control them are coupled with the spiral of anxiety and stress, and it’s a  very difficult loop to escape from. In these cases, it would be advisable to go to a specialist for them to help you manage the anxiety and stress.

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  • Lewis, M.; Haviland-Jones, J.M. (2000). Handbook of emotions. Nueva York: The Guilford Press.