Answering Your Questions: What Is The Difference Between Stress And Anxiety?

Stress and anxiety

People sometimes ask me the difference between stress and anxiety. The terms seem to be used somewhat interchangeably these days that it isn’t always easy to know the difference – you may even wonder if there is even any difference at all. Modern life is so busy that feeling stress and anxiety are an increasingly normal part of living a modern life.

It’s a good question. And one whose answer is both simple and complicated. Yes, there are differences, technically, in terms of their cultural and clinical definitions, but they are far more similar, and malleable, than they may appear.

Here are 7 key facts you need to know.


1) Defining Stress

Stress, a term coined by Hans Selye in the 1930’s, was originally defined as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”  He believed the pressure of stress generates the motivation we need to adjust our behavior to what is required, and believed stress could be either good or bad.

Reflecting a broader and more modern understanding, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5) defines stress as:

“the pattern of specific and nonspecific responses a person makes to stimulus events that disturb his or her equilibrium and tax or exceed his or her ability to cope.”

Fundamentally, stress has to do with how we cope with stimuli that affect us. Stimuli can be external or internal, and how we cope can be defined externally by others, or by our own perception. No matter how these variables are defined, when resources feel pressured by stimuli, stress is generated. The higher the pressure, the higher the stress.


2) Defining Anxiety

Anxiety, on the other hand, tends to be generated internally, and has to do with our perception of what will be demanded, and our resources to cope. It encompasses our internal calculation of stress, it’s potential impact, and importantly our feelings about it. What might happen? Can I handle it? Do I have what it takes? What if it isn’t ok?

Clinical definitions of anxiety focus on the emotional distress surrounding a potential negative stimulus or danger, not necessarily a reaction to the stimulus itself. DSM-5, for example, defines anxiety as:

“the apprehensive anticipation of future danger or misfortune accompanied by a feeling of worry, distress, and/or somatic symptoms of tension. The focus of anticipated danger may be internal or external.”


3) Stress feels externally generated, whereas anxiety feels internally generated.  

Stress tends to flow from the experience of pressure (think work deadline, a friend’s request, traffic slowing you, etc), whereas anxiety tends to relate to our feelings about our potential experience and how we will cope (think internal questions like, Will I be able to handle it? Can I do this? Do I want to?). If stress fundamentally refers to our experience under pressure, anxiety relates to our feelings about that experience.


4) Stress is usually experienced in the present, whereas anxiety lives in the future.

Stress tends to be situational and refer to a present and real demand. Our boss expects us to meet a deadline, our spouse expects us to pick up the dry cleaning, our child expects us to pick them up from school, a client expects us to deliver a product. We feel stress as we do what is needed to comply with life’s demands. It is about the doing.

Anxiety tends to be about the future, and what might happen, and how we feel. Webster’s defines anxiety is a “Fear or nervousness about what might happen; a feeling of wanting to do something very much.”[i]  Anxiety is a cognitive construct about some future possibility, whereas stress is experienced as something that is happening now.


5) Stress feels situational, whereas anxiety feels personal.  

Because stress is often conceived as relating to external pressure, it often feels situational and therefore outside our control. In this way, stress seldom generates feelings of responsibility or shame. Instead stress is sometimes even culturally prized as a badge of honor or status symbol. Anxiety on the other hand, is neither associated with feelings of pride nor a sense of doing our best. Instead anxiety is usually experienced as a weakness, a mental failing, and therefore something to be ashamed of.


6) Stress and anxiety share physiological similarities. 

And yet, despite the definitional, clinical and cultural differences, stress and anxiety are physiologically indistinguishable. At their most intense, they share the almost reflexive “defensive survival reaction,” commonly known as fight-or-flight, that sets off a cascade of physical changes along the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis preparing the body for threat. Attention is sharpened, energy is boosted, while oxygen and immunity are heightened readying the body for action. While the intensity of the threat response can vary, the experience of stress and anxiety in our bodies is more or less the same – almost indistinguishable physiologically. One person’s experience of stress is another person’s experience of anxiety, and visa versa.


7) We control how we define stress and anxiety, and our experience of it.

The power of our thinking when it comes to stress and anxiety cannot be understated. With stress and anxiety sharing the same physiological footprint, the difference lies in how we define our experience.  Labeling our experience is how we construct our emotions. We can say we are stressed about a huge project at work, or that we are anxious about a huge project at work. The meaning for each could be the same, or radically different. The only thing that distinguishes these two descriptions is what each of those words mean to you and your audience. For some, these words mean the same, or close to the same, thing. But for others, anxiety and stress can be very different. Understanding we have control over how we define our experience can be a powerful tool in managing it.


While there are important conceptual differences between stress and anxiety, there are many similarities as well, including the interaction and overlap between them. Stress about a work deadline today can fuel anxiety over future deadlines, traffic stress this morning can have you fretting over how you will handle the rest of your day.

Moreover, there are critical individual differences in how we think about stress and anxiety, and how we define our experience shapes it. According to the latest science, our experience of emotions follows how we think about and define them. As we label what we are experiencing, we co-create it.

The great news here is that we are in control of how we label our experience, that in turn can transform how we experience it. In the end, the difference between stress and anxiety has more to do with how we define them in our life than with what they technically mean. How we think about our experience is what matters most.


For more help with managing stress and anxiety, check out my anxiety blog, download my free ebook, or sign up for my newsletter.


Alicia H. Clark, PsyD