What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

Often, stress and anxiety are used interchangeably. However, it must be known that there is a difference between the two. Stress and anxiety both impact us physically and psychologically, but different people perceive them differently. So how does one differentiate?

Experts state that while stress is mostly external, anxiety is “largely internal”.

“Although one can generate stress for oneself through negative self-talk, pessimistic attitude, or need for perfectionism, it is usually triggered by external factors. Too many responsibilities or a high-stakes work project can usually trigger a stress response. Anxiety, on the other hand, is largely internal and depends on how you react to stressors,” said clinical psychologist, Narendra Kinger, founder, ‘Talk To Me’.

Often, even after the cessation or removal of stressors, some individuals may still feel overwhelmed and/or distressed. “This distress is called anxiety. It is an exaggerated reaction or response to a given situation. If the worry and distress you feel in a given situation is unusual, excessive, or lasts much longer than most others, it may be anxiety rather than stress,” Kinger told indianexpress.com.

Anxiety is a psychological reaction to any change that occurs. “This reaction generally springs out from fear as a conditioned response. Overwhelming reaction to stress brings about anxiety at the emotional level. Stress is essential to keeping the spark of life while anxiety consumes life,” mentioned Dr Karthiyayini Mahadevan, Head, Wellness and Wellbeing at Columbia Pacific Communities.


Where stress is concerned, there is always an external stressor or a trigger – like a strict teacher, approaching deadline or a fight with a friend. With anxiety, there doesn’t need to be a stressor, it can be a worry about something we think may happen in the future. “Very often, what we worry about may not even happen, but the thought of it happening causes us to become anxious and panic,” said Dr Shireen Stephen (Ph.D.), counselling psychologist, Mind Talk, Cadabams Hospitals, Bengaluru.

Dr Stephen differentiates between the two with an example. “Stress is the pressure that you may be under to make a presentation at a team meeting or to complete a project on time or to finish studying for an exam. Anxiety is the worry that the presentation might not go well or that the project may not be good enough or that you might fail the exam,” Dr Stephen mentioned.

As per Dr Stephen, another distinction is the duration – stress lasts until the event is resolved but anxiety can be persistent and last for a very long time.


Symptoms of stress include moodiness, irritability or anger, feeling overwhelmed, dizzy, lonely, nauseous and a general feeling of unhappiness. Symptoms of anxiety include feeling restless, tense, nervous and a general feeling of dread.

“Both stress and anxiety have common symptoms such as increased heart rate, breathing faster and having an upset stomach or being constipated, but as you can see, they differ in all other aspects,” elaborated Dr Stephen.

How do they manifest?

Excessive anxiety or panic immobilises us and we are unable to function, said Kinger. “Most stressful situations are difficult to get through but are ultimately manageable, whereas anxiety disorders prevent you from managing normal, everyday tasks,” Kinger said.

While mild anxiety might be vague and unsettling, severe anxiety may seriously affect day-to-day living. Panic attacks are characteristic of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder. Also, high levels of stress and anxiety in social situations may indicate a social anxiety disorder, said Kinger.

One of the most common anxiety disorders is generalised anxiety disorder, said Dr J Mayurnath Reddy, consultant psychiatrist, Yashoda Hospitals Hyderabad. “To identify if someone has generalised anxiety disorder, symptoms such as excessive, hard-to-control worry occurring most days over six months need to be noted. The worry may jump from topic to topic,” Dr Reddy noted.

According to Dr Reffy, another type is panic disorder, which is marked by sudden attacks of anxiety that may leave a person sweating, dizzy, and gasping for air. Anxiety may also manifest in the form of specific phobias (such as fear of flying) or as social anxiety, which is marked by a pervasive fear of social situations.

How to cope?

Physical activity, a nutritious and varied diet, and good sleep hygiene are a good starting point to control these symptoms, said Dr Reddy.

“If your stress or anxiety does not respond to these management techniques, or if they are affecting your day-to-day functioning or mood, consider talking to a mental health professional who can help you understand what you are experiencing and provide you additional coping tools,” said Dr Reddy. According to Kinger, there are several actions to help a person cope with milder, more focused, or shorter-term anxiety disorders, including:

Stress management: Learning to manage stress can help limit potential triggers. Organise upcoming pressures and deadlines, compile lists to make daunting tasks more manageable, and commit to taking time off from study or work

Relaxation techniques: Meditation, deep breathing exercises, long baths, resting in the dark, and yoga interventions to replace negative thoughts with positive ones: Make a list of the negative thoughts that might be cycling as a result of anxiety, write down another list next to it containing positive, believable thoughts to replace them. Creating a mental image of successfully facing and conquering a specific fear can also provide benefits if anxiety symptoms relate to a specific cause, such as in a phobia.

Support network: Talk with people who are supportive, including family members or friends. Support group services may be available locally and online.

Exercise: Physical exertion can improve self-image and release chemicals in the brain that trigger positive feelings

Counselling: A standard way of treating anxiety is psychological counselling. This can include cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, or a combination of therapies.

Another potential treatment is exposure therapy, which involves confronting anxiety triggers in a safe, controlled way in order to break the cycle of fear around the trigger, mentioned Dr Reddy.

“Eventually, with a set of suitable mind-relaxing exercises, one can identify and differentiate the stress and triggers causing anxiety. Furthermore, it is important to remember that stress and anxiety are a natural and integral part of our daily life, and experiencing those does not always indicate the presence of a mental health disorder,” Kinger said.

This article was originally published in IndianExpress.com.

Featured image credit – Andrea Piacquadio

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