Stress and anxiety are phenomena that are sometimes used as synonyms . And it is not surprising because they are closely related. Both can be adaptive and can even appear together.

But if we stop to think, there are different types of stress (chronic stress, work stress, acute stress, etc.) and different anxiety disorders (OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attack, etc.).

Related articles:

  • “Types of Stress and Their Triggers”
  • “The 7 types of anxiety (causes and symptoms)”

Differences between stress and anxiety

So, what is the difference between stress and anxiety? In this article you can find a list of differences between stress and anxiety.

1. The origin

Stress and anxiety are often related and both can be adaptive at times. However, the origin of these phenomena may be different .

Anxiety can follow a warning reaction, and can be associated with fear and worry. For example, the threat of an animal or the anticipatory idea of something bad is going to happen. In contrast, stress is a phenomenon that occurs because the person does not possess (or thinks they do not possess) the skills, abilities, or time needed to deal with a particular situation. In other words, there is a mismatch between the specific demand and the resources to deal with this demand.

Stress can also occur when a person is at work and has to carry out certain functions, but does not receive enough information about their role from the company, or the information they receive from the company is ambiguous. This leads to what is known as role conflict and role ambiguity, which are psychosocial variables that relate to stress in the work environment.

2. Anxiety is a symptom of stress

Much of the confusion between the two phenomena and what makes them similar is that they often appear together. In fact, a stressful situation causes anxiety as one of its symptoms, although it can also produce others , for example, depression or headaches.

Prolonged stress can also lead to other consequences such as demotivation or depersonalization. Prolonged stress burns the person and causes emotional fatigue.

3. Regarding objective intensity

Although stress can cause many problems for the person in a stressful situation, it is possible to reduce stress by eliminating the stimulus that causes this situation . For example, when someone feels stressed because they have not managed their time well and work is piling up before an exam. Once the test passes, the person can return to normal.

While an individual with an anxiety disorder may feel great anxiety about a stimulus, for example, in the case of a phobia, even though the stimulus disappears, the person will still suffer from the phobia even if he or she imagines the presence of the stimulus. It could be said that stress is, at least in most cases, a real cause (even if it is mediated by the person’s expectations). However, pathological anxiety is an irrational interpretation about a danger or an exaggerated worry . The intensity of the anxiety is not in accordance with the objective situation.

4. The temporal moment

By associating stress with a triggering stimulus, it usually manifests itself in the present moment . For example, when a person has to hand in an assignment at the university and doesn’t have time to do it. However, the stress can be prolonged, for example, when someone does not make ends meet and has to pay the mortgage on their home (the stress is still there month after month, and the mortgage is getting bigger) so the stress becomes chronic. If the person is lucky enough to pay the mortgage, they will stop feeling stressed and will feel relieved.

But anxiety can appear again and again, because of worries about other temporary moments . For example, by anticipating consequences that may not have occurred (as in generalized anxiety disorder). Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension or fear and the source of this concern is not always known or acknowledged, which can increase the distress a person feels.

5. The relationship of stress to stressors

As you can see, what probably characterizes stress the most is the presence of stressors , and that is that there are many causes of stress. These stressors can be personal (for example, due to an individual’s beliefs or level of education and training), although they can also be organizational (due to the leadership styles of superiors or the company’s communication) or social (due to the economic crisis or political destabilization). Stress has to do with the demands of the environment.

6. Anxiety and emotional impact

Therefore, situations that cause stress are the result of external factors. But in the case of anxiety, it has more to do with psychological factors and emotions . That is, it usually has its origin in interpretations that may or may not be real. A person suffers stress when faced with a wide variety of life situations, which he or she perceives as excessive or in which a person does not have the necessary resources to be able to deal with them effectively.

In the case of anxiety, it is an emotional, physical, and cognitive warning reaction to a threat whether it is real or not, but it is also an emotional response to stress that continues after a stressor is gone and that responds and grows through thoughts.

For example, when a test is coming up where someone has a lot at stake. On the one hand there is the stress of the situation and the overload of work, but on the other hand there is the worry of playing the whole course in an exam. This anxiety can make it difficult for a person to sleep during that time, thinking about whether or not he or she will make it through the exam. If the person does not pass the test, the anxiety will probably take over, but the workload will have decreased and therefore the individual will not be stressed.