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Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

Let’s start by talking about what stress and anxiety are. Often times, we use the terms “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably but they are actually different when it comes to diagnosable anxiety disorders. Clinical anxiety and everyday anxiety or stress often look similar and share the same arousal response. Arousal basically means being alert physically and mentally. So they both trigger people to become more alert. They also share many of the same symptoms. Here are ways we can distinguish between the two:

  • Stress or everyday anxiety: 
    • Is a response to a known environmental factor. 
    • Symptoms usually go away when the stressor goes away. 
    • Is something we all experience at some point in our lives.
    • Can be motivational.
  • Clinical Anxiety
    • Can occur with chronic stress, a major stressful event, or it can occur when there is no identifiable stressor.
    • Symptoms persist even after the stressor has passed.
    • Symptom intensity is exaggerated compared to what one would expect in a particular situation.
    • Causes significant distress and interferes with your daily life. 
    • Is not motivational.
    • Is perpetuated by avoidance (which we will discuss later).
    • Anxiety can take many different forms and may or may not be diagnosable.

Anxiety ranges in severity from everyday anxiety and stress to a diagnosable anxiety disorder. For a list of the differences between stress and clinical anxiety click here and for more information about various anxiety diagnoses click here.

Stress Curve

Let’s highlight the part about stress or everyday anxiety as a motivator and high levels of anxiety as a hindrance to performance. Please click here for a visual of the Yerkes-Dodson model of arousal and performance, also known as the stress curve.

The idea here is that someone who has no stress or anxiety (aka no arousal) has little motivation to perform and keep up with their responsibilities. Whereas someone with too much anxiety or arousal may attempt to avoid the situation, or perform poorly due to their symptoms. However, with a moderate level of arousal from stress or anxiety, a person is likely to be motivated to prepare, concentrate, or do whatever is necessary for the situation without becoming debilitated or avoidant.

For example, some stress before a test or deadline may motivate and energize you to study.  However, with minimal or no stress, you may say “why bother studying?” and decide to wing it.  With too much anxiety you may feel overwhelmed, hopeless and avoid studying at all. 

Avoidance and Exposure

Avoidance is a common response to feelings of anxiety. Take a look at the graph here to help visualize how avoidance relates to anxiety.

Often, when people have an anxiety-provoking situation, they experience numerous uncomfortable physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. In an effort to avoid the uncomfortable experience of anxiety, people avoid the anxiety-provoking situation all together. 

Initially, the avoidance brings a sense of relief. However, every time we avoid an anxiety-producing situation, our anxiety is reinforced. The brain sees it like this: "When I avoid this situation, I feel better. I guess I should try to avoid it next time too." The avoidance-anxiety roller coaster repeats. 

But the short term relief of avoidance and escape comes at a high cost. Avoidance and escape contribute to the persistence of anxiety and reduces a person’s level of daily functioning. This is why exposure or doing things that you typically avoid because of anxiety is beneficial. Exposing yourself to the anxiety-provoking situation helps you to see the situations more realistically and increases your tolerance for anxiety.

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Last Updated: 6/21/22