Understanding the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

Sophie Tremblay
Written by Sophie Tremblay /
Annie Ferland
In collaboration with Annie Ferland /

Anxiety and stress are emotions that we deal with in our daily lives and that we regularly discuss, often without even being aware of it.

“I’m so stressed with work these days”, “I hardly slept last night; I was feeling anxious”—We hear these statements all the time.

Because of their similarities, we commonly use the terms "stress" and "anxiety" interchangeably. However, these are two distinct experiences that affect us differently.

Understanding the difference between stress and anxiety can help us manage their effects and choose the right strategies to take care of our mental and physical health.

What is the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

To differentiate stress from anxiety, it's important to understand that stress is typically a reaction to immediate external pressure, whereas anxiety is a more persistent reaction that isn't always linked to a specific event. Stress is the body's natural response to immediate threats or challenges, often known as the "fight-or-flight response," while anxiety is marked by an ongoing apprehension or fear regarding future events.

Anxiety is characterized by excessive worry and can be triggered by both internal and external factors. Stress, on the other hand, can arise from external factors like work deadlines, relationship issues, or financial problems.

While stress and anxiety can appear similar in how they manifest, they can be distinguished by their causes and how the body and mind respond when their causes diminish or disappear.

Stress typically emerges in response to a specific, immediate situation. When the stressor disappears, the symptoms of stress generally diminish. Anxiety, however, is often linked to anticipating future events, which may or may not occur. For example, you might feel stressed about having to give a presentation at work, but anxious about your performance. No matter how prepared you are, you cannot predict exactly what will happen during the presentation before it is finished, but this fear of not performing well is what generates anxiety.

Even after the anxiety-inducing situation has passed, you may continue to experience symptoms of anxiety due to negative thoughts about the event's consequences or fear of a similar situation happening again.

It's also important to note that prolonged and persistent stress can lead to anxiety, and that these emotions often coexist.

What Are the Symptoms of Stress?

When stress takes hold, it's not just in our heads—it affects our bodies too. When we're stressed, our bodies kick into high gear, releasing hormones that rev us up, causing our hearts to race, our breathing to quicken, and our muscles to tense up.

Sometimes, stress isn't just a passing phase. It can linger, staying at a low level and never quite dissipating. This persistent stress can lead to chronic stress, which comes with its own health risks. Chronic stress can take a toll on both our physical and mental well-being, making it important to find ways to manage and reduce stress levels in our lives.

So although the stress response is helpful in certain situations, prolonged stress can have negative short-term and long-term effects. If you're feeling overwhelmed by stress, seeking support from a health professional can be beneficial.

What Are the Symptoms of Anxiety?

People experiencing anxiety might feel restless, finding it hard to sit still or relax. This restlessness can contribute to feelings of fatigue, even after a full night's sleep. Concentrating on tasks may become challenging, as the mind jumps from one worry to another or stays focused on a specific worry.

In more severe cases, anxiety can lead to panic attacks. These are intense episodes of fear or discomfort that come on suddenly and can be overwhelming. In other cases, anxiety can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder, which is a type of mental health condition that can be diagnosed and treated by health professionals.

When anxiety becomes overwhelming and is experienced with other negative symptoms, this can be indicative of a larger issue. Recognizing these signs can help individuals seek appropriate support and treatment to manage their anxiety effectively.

Stress and Anxiety Both Have an Important Function

We often associate stress and anxiety with negative feelings and the effects they can have on us at certain times and our daily lives. But you might be surprised to know that they both have important functions that can be beneficial in certain situations.

As a natural reaction to situations your body instinctively identifies as dangerous, stress can help you deal with challenges by providing the energy you need to rise to the occasion, allowing you to respond quickly to threatening and heightened situations.

Anxiety can help you detect frightening situations and can motivate you to prepare to face them. If you feel anxious about something, you might be more inclined to prepare or take action to address it, helping the anxious feeling to subside.

Changing how you think about stress and anxiety, and accepting them as normal, even useful experiences, can help you manage their effects and develop a healthier relationship with these innate responses.

Example of a Stressful and Anxiety Inducing Situation

Understanding the difference between stress and anxiety can be challenging, as both can manifest similarly. Let's delve into a concrete example to highlight these differences:

Imagine you have a job interview scheduled for tomorrow. The anticipation of the interview might lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. In this scenario, the job interview is the triggering event. The emotion generated could be nervousness or apprehension about the interview's outcome.

Stress in this context would manifest as feeling pressure to perform well during the interview, preparing adequately, and managing your time effectively. You might experience physical symptoms like sweating or muscle tension due to the stress of the upcoming event.

On the other hand, anxiety might manifest as excessive worry or fear about the interview. You might find yourself constantly thinking about what could go wrong, imagining worst-case scenarios, or feeling restless and unable to relax. This might have effects such as trouble sleeping, irritability, or difficulty concentrating on tasks unrelated to the interview.

This is just one example of how stress and anxiety can manifest in our lives. It's important to remember that these reactions can vary from person to person and across different situations. Seeking support from a mental health professional can help you better understand and manage these responses in your own life.

How to Manage Stress and Anxiety

One of the keys to managing stress and anxiety is understanding these emotions as normal reactions. This can help you move past immediate negative thoughts like feeling abnormal or alone, or like feeling the need to eliminate these emotions. Calming these initial thoughts may allow you to refocus on coping strategies and recognize when it might be time to seek professional help.

If you're uncertain about needing help, curious about coping methods, or feel that stress and anxiety take up too much space in your life, it’s a good idea to consult a doctor or mental health professional. They can provide personalized advice and support.

For additional information on anxiety and how to manage it, check out our article: How to Stop Anxious Thoughts.

Here are some everyday strategies you can try right now to help manage stress and anxiety:

  1. Practising deep breathing exercises
  2. Doing mindfulness meditation
  3. Trying progressive muscle relaxation
  4. Doing physical activity
  5. Adopting healthy lifestyle habits (such as eating a generally healthy diet and getting enough sleep)
  6. Limiting screen time
  7. Connecting with others
  8. Establishing a routine
  9. Setting realistic goals
  10. Seeking professional help

Not every strategy will work for everyone, so start by choosing a few that interest you and that you can implement into your life. Taking these steps can help you gain power over the impact of stress and anxiety on your well-being.

In Conclusion

Understanding the difference between stress and anxiety can be a valuable tool in managing their effects and harnessing them as everyday allies. It's normal to feel stressed or anxious at times, but when these feelings become overwhelming, they can impact our health and well-being.

If you're feeling stuck or overwhelmed, remember that help is available. Professionals can offer treatment and strategies to manage these feelings. Tools like Jade and directories of professional orders and associations can help you find the right professional for your needs.

Don't hesitate to seek help. Professionals are trained to assist with these aspects of life, and they'll be there for you when you're ready.

About the author

Sophie Tremblay
Sophie Tremblay
Content Specialist, B.A.

Sophie excels as a French and English content specialist and project coordinator for Optania. With a Bachelor of Arts and a double major in French and English literature, her linguistic expertise brings rigour and excellence to the content produced by the team.

Her experience in coordinating content writing, conducting specialized demonstrations and training, and supporting customer service operations demonstrates her continued commitment. Her passion for language and creating quality content is a constant source of motivation in her work.

See all Sophie Tremblay's posts

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