What's the difference between anxiety and stress?

Stress and anxiety; two words that are often used interchangeably by people who think they mean the same thing, yet these conditions have very different definitions.

For those who live with anxiety, it can get frustrating to be constantly told to just relax and not worry. So many times, people mistake what we are experiencing as stress and try to reassure us that it will pass. But here's the thing; we aren't just stressed and as much as we would love for it to pass, it doesn't.

Everyone experiences stress and anxiety at one time or another. The difference between the two is that stress is a response to a threat in a situation and anxiety is a reaction to the stress.

Confusing the two can cause a lot of undue harm and frustration for the millions of people who deal with an anxiety disorder.

About anxiety

A person who lives with anxiety often experiences fear that overcomes all emotions and once that fear is pervasive, worry and apprehension set in. Many people will describe anxiety as a feeling of apprehension or fear, which is almost always followed by feelings of impending doom. What is so frustrating that often this source of uneasiness is not known or recognised.

People with anxiety have a tendency worry a lot, but they are not sure what they are worrying about. They are scared but cannot define what that fear is or where it comes from.

About stress

Stress, on the other hand, is caused by an existing stress-causing factor or stressor. It comes and goes and can result from just about any situation or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, nervous, or even anxious.

David Spiegel, Stanford University's associate chair of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, explains, "The key difference [between the two] is the sense of helplessness. When it comes to stress, you can deal with things and master them. By rolling up your sleeves and tackling that stress, you can feel less helpless."

Dispel the myth

The best way to dispel the myth that anxiety and stress are the same thing is to start with awareness and compassion. It's important to understand that a lot of anxiety originates from fear, while the majority of stress stems from external sources. Simply put: anxiety comes from an internal source and stress from an external factor. That is the very reason that people who live with anxiety can't just get over it and move on. It lives within us.