You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?

Image Description

Stress is everywhere and it affects everyone. Thankfully, stress is usually short-lived and once your deadline passes or the relatives go home, you usually feel a lot better. 

On the other hand, anxiety is a lot more than feeling stressed or worried. It’s a serious mental health condition that often persists without reason. 

What is stress?

Stress is a normal reaction to the demands of everyday life. It’s a protective mechanism designed to shield the body from imminent threat that’s often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. In the past, the stress response helped us escape from large, four-legged predators while in modern times, it helps us respond to physical and psychological threats, such as an approaching car or big work deadline.

So why does stress cop such bad press? 

“Stress encompasses a range of physical, emotional and mental symptoms that support us to cope effectively with a threat or demand that’s generally short-term,” says Dr Subhadra Evans, a psychology lecturer at Deakin University. 

“Unfortunately for many people, demands can feel excessive or unrelenting, and this can cause the stress response to become exaggerated, leaving them vulnerable to such things as poor sleep, poor concentration and indecision. Generally though, demands peak at different times and when the deadline passes, the stress reduces and we begin to feel more settled and focused again.”

What is anxiety?

Even though there’s some crossover in the symptoms, anxiety is very different to stress. Stress usually passes once the stressor is removed, while anxiety persists. 

“Anxiety is typically characterised by an enduring feeling of not being able to cope, preoccupation with worries as well as sustained physical feelings of anxiety such as shortness of breath, muscle tension and agitation,” says Melissa O’Shea, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Deakin University. 

“In the case of anxiety, we might say the stress response remains ‘switched on’ even though a demand or threat has passed. When someone is suffering from anxiety, they will also notice negative effects in their day-to-day life… impacting on their ability to perform their usual activities such as work or study, and relationships can become difficult.”

According to Beyond Blue, anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. On average, one in three women will experience anxiety at some stage in their life. 

Crucially, stress is a risk factor for anxiety. Ongoing stressful events like work stress or changing jobs, pregnancy and giving birth, the death of a loved one and family and relationship problems, can trigger anxiety. 

“Signs that someone is under too much stress and is at risk of more serious mental health problems such as anxiety include feelings of being out of control, confused thinking as well as seeing threats and stressors where they don’t exist; they might also be avoiding situations related to the stressor,” says Dr Evans.  

When to seek help

Stress management techniques like eating well, getting enough sleep, avoiding conflict, practising positive thinking and doing things you enjoy are important for everyone. However, if stress or anxiety is getting in the way of your life, seek professional help. 

“It is important to seek assistance when feelings of stress or anxiety are persistent and interfering with important parts of your life – for example, when it becomes difficult to concentrate on the things that you need to, or you are avoiding important social or occupational duties,” says Assoc Prof O’Shea.

It’s best to see your GP first. Lifestyle changes like regular exercise and relaxation strategies may be enough to curb mild symptoms of anxiety, although for more serious cases, psychological or medical treatments are likely to be required. 

Words by Angela Tufvesson