What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

Updated: Jul 29

Stress is a response to daily or life pressures, however, whether we find a situation stressful or not depends on our appraisal of the situation and whether we consider that we have the resources available to cope with the stress (Caltabiano et al., 2008). We may consider situations stressful if they appear ambiguous, undesirable, uncontrollable, or if we feel the need to change due to the stress (Caltabiano et al., 2008). If we consider a situation stressful and we do not believe that we have the resources to cope with the situation, this appraisal will cause adrenaline to be released, which can lead to raised blood pressure and other negative health effects.

Anxiety is one of the many adverse effects of stress. It is a process during which a person becomes afraid and apprehensive about what lies ahead and may display itself in unhelpful thought patterns and associated physical sensations such as heart palpitations, rapid breathing, sweating, and chest tightness. Both stress and anxiety, if ongoing, have the potential to contribute to chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease (Kubzansky & Kawachi, 2000).

A fundamental difference between stress and anxiety is that, while stress is a response to a specific stressor, anxiety may not have an identifiable cause. This is why anxiety is considered a mental disorder, while stress is not.

To be classified as having anxiety or an anxiety disorder, an individual must have symptoms that persist over a considerable period of time. This tends to differentiate anxiety from stress, as stress usually passes when the stressor disappears, while anxiety tends to continue.

Stress in life is fairly certain and can include situations such as disaster and traumatic events, major life transitions (for example getting married, becoming a parent, or the death of a spouse), stressors (including conflict within a family or difficulties at school or at work), or sources of stress within the person (such as an illness or an internal state of conflict) (Caltabiano et al., 2008).

An additional form of stress is called daily hassles, which potentially may be more damaging to our overall health than major life events due to the frequency that they are experienced. Types of daily hassles include concerns about our weight, worrying about the health of family members, and the rising price of common goods (Caltabiano et al., 2008).

As it is not possible to totally eliminate stress from our lives, there are some things that we can do to modify the stress response, and in turn, maintain our health. These include:

-Enhancing our social support networks (Caltabiano et al., 2008).

-Improving our sense of personal control in regard to the stress including the realisation that we have the ability to take concrete actions to reduce stress, that we have the ability to use our thinking styles to modify the impact of the stress, having the opportunity to choose between different types of actions in order to reduce the stress and having the opportunity to gain knowledge about a stressful event (Caltabiano et al., 2008).

-Improving our organisation. We tend to feel stressed when we are under time pressure, however, if we are organised, we may feel less stress. This could involve designating certain places for certain items, packing lunches and organising clothes the night before, keeping an appointment diary, and using time management skills. (Caltabiano et al., 2008).

Stress management techniques are also used to alter the stress response and optimise our physical and mental health and include:

-Therapy such as CBT and Counselling

-Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and breathing exercises


-Physical therapy such as massage (Caltabiano et al., 2008).

-and Mindfulness approaches such as Meditation and Hypnosis (Caltabiano et al., 2008).

How do you manage stress in your life?


Caltabiano, M., Sarafino, E., & Byrne, D. (2008). Health Psychology: Biopsychosocial Interactions. John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.

Kubzansky, L.D. & Kawachi, I. (2000). Going to the heart of the matter. Do negative emotions cause coronary heart disease?

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