The Difference Between Stress & Anxiety

In many places today we hear of “stress and anxiety;” two terms often linked, used interchangeably, and virtually, in everyday language, meaning the same thing. But the truth is that they are not the same, and not everyone experiencing one also suffers from the other.

Stress is the body’s reaction to a circumstance or situation that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment or response. While we typically associate stress with negative responses, it can be caused by any change – even positive ones.

Anxiety, by contrast, is actually a general term for several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in America, affecting around 18 percent of the U.S. population in any given year, and almost 30 percent of American adults across the lifespan.

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, of unease, and worry, often related to situations perceived as uncontrollable or unavoidable. Anxiety can also be viewed as a future-oriented mood in which a person is anticipating the attempt (viewed as probably unsuccessful) to cope with upcoming negative events. Put another way, stress is a reaction to something happening now; while anxiety is a reaction to something that is going to happen at a future date, may happen at a future date, or may never actually happen at all.

Another characteristic differentiating stress form anxiety is that while stress can have several separate and distinct causes (often happening concurrently), anxiety often takes one specific (or even future) cause of stress and blows it up in importance and impact to the point that it makes a person feel afraid or as though he or she can’t face something.

However, anxiety can also occur without an identifiable triggering stimulus.

There are both physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety; and anxiety itself can take several forms that go beyond the insistent worrying that may be the most common. These can include phobia, a fear of something; social anxiety, the inability to interact with or be around people; obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which a person unconsciously tries to reduce his or her anxiety through repetitive behaviors, nervous rituals, obsessions and compulsions; and post-traumatic stress disorder, some symptoms of which can include hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, avoidant behaviors, anxiety, anger and depression.

There are many highly effective therapies available to treat anxiety, including psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapies, and medication. What works best for any situation will likely depend on the specific symptoms you are experiencing but in all cases, Anxiety Disorders are treatable.

As with stress, if you believe that you are suffering from anxiety, if it is negatively impacting your life, your ability to carry on your daily life, if it is preventing you from having normal relationships or is interfering with work, we urge you to call Capital EAP and speak to one of our professional counselors.