Anxiety and Stress –  What’s the difference?

We’ve all been through times when we feel anxious. These days we hear a lot about stress so most of us have some awareness of what it is to feel stressed but do you know the difference between stress and anxiety?

What’s the difference between anxiety and stress?


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Stress is a physical reaction to a threatening situation.  So for example an unachievable deadline at work will cause stress.  Now for creatures that have evolved over thousands of years we haven’t done too well at evolving our stress response! We still have the same physical reactions to tight deadlines at work as our forefathers had to being chased by a saber toothed tiger!

Our stress response is designed to give us the best chance of survival when faced with life threatening situations.

Some of the physical changes are:

  1. Our blood flow is diverted from what are seen as non essential functions to make sure more blood goes to our vital organs – for example the heart and lungs so that we can run at a sprint away from danger
  2. Our intestines stop producing the mucus that lines them
  3. Our breathing becomes shallow and we breath into the tops of our lungs with short sharp breaths
  4. Our endocrine system releases adrenalin and cortisol – both designed to maximize our strength and speed
  5. Our parasympathetic nervous system (the part that deals with automatic responses) remembers this response so that if faced with the similar situation we can react promptly and with even more chance of survival.


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Anxiety is commonly thought of as the reaction to stress. So an unachievable deadline at work will cause the physical response of stress and we will feel anxious as a result.

When we feel stressed more often than not we know the cause. We know what is making us feel stressed.  Sometimes we can cope with this stress. Anxiety tends to result from internal fears, for example a fear of what comes next. It can make you feel trapped, out of control and unable to think your way through a situation.

Another factor with anxiety is that there are usually several triggers at the same time. It is rarely the case that we are anxious about one thing. Using the work deadline analogy again…..  I may be anxious about missing a deadline at work. I will also be anxious about the consequences of this. Will I get marked down by my manager? Will I lose my job? If I lose my job how will I pay my mortgage? If I can’t pay my mortgage………and so it goes on!

Here are five points to try to help you identify the differences between stress and anxiety

  1. Anxiety is often a reaction to stress
  2. Anxiety involves worrying about the future. Stress is usually more constant and present
  3. Anxiety is usually believed to be short-term and stress is thought to affect us more in the long term
  4. Anxiety is often rooted in personal fears whereas stress is often caused by external factors
  5. Anxiety is usually accompanied by feelings of being unable to cope or overwhelmed

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