What Is The Difference Between Stress & Anxiety?

Learn about adaptive, mental, and chronic stress and how anxiety is related to it.
Judson Brewer, MD PhD, is an expert in mindfulness training for addictions and a thought leader in the field of habit change and the "science of self-mastery".
difference between stress and anxiety
Judson Brewer, MD PhD, is an expert in mindfulness training for addictions and a thought leader in the field of habit change and the "science of self-mastery".

Internationally known mindfulness expert Judson Brewer, MD Ph.D., explains in this transcription of his first Insight course session how to tell the difference between stress and anxiety.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, we’re experiencing an epidemic of anxiety. More than 20 % of the population in the United States alone deals with clinical levels of anxiety and many more have periods of anxiety. The epidemic is accelerating. A recent story by the New York Times reported that in its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase of undergraduates reporting overwhelming anxiety in the previous year — up to 62 % in 2016 from 50 % in 2011. 62%, that’s a lot of anxiety.

You might want to listen to this soothing ambient music track while reading on to cleanse and enter your peaceful center:

  1. Clear Water Bridget Cameron 14:36

What Is The Difference Between Stress And Anxiety?

What Is Performance Anxiety?

Now let’s make sure we all understand what we mean by anxiety.

Many of us who have to meet deadlines — whether it’s school or work — feel like stress is a necessary component of our everyday lives. It’s like coffee. It wakes us up, it gets us revved up and keeps us going to get that work done. For others of us who have to get out there and perform — whether on stage, in sports, or even simply giving a presentation — that performance anxiety gets us through.

Several clients I’ve worked with who have anxiety can’t imagine what it would be like not to have it. They feel like they would never have gotten anywhere without anxiety pushing them to be productive or to perform. Haven’t we even heard scientists tell us that there are good elements of stress, that fight-or-flight reaction that we have? Doesn’t it keep us safe and out of harm’s way?

The answer is it depends on what we mean by stress. Certain types of stress can be helpful, others not so much.

As far as performance anxiety goes, anxiety making us perform better may even be a myth, a false association that our brains have made without us knowing it, a story that we mistakenly believe simply because of the way our brains are set up.

With all of this in mind and as a scientist myself, I like to start with the question, “What are we talking about? Or in science speak, “Let’s define our terms.” If I don’t know what I’m studying, I can’t isolate the variables to properly study it.

Helpful Vs. Unhelpful Stress

So what do I mean by stress as compared to anxiety? Let’s keep it simple and focus on physiological versus mental stress. Then we’ll see how these link to anxiety.

There are ways in which our bodies immediately react to dangerous situations that help keep us alive. You’ve probably heard of this as the fight-or-flight response. We’ve all had events that triggered this reaction in our lives. For example, if we’re walking down the sidewalk in a big city, start to cross the street, and suddenly see a big bus coming straight for us, we immediately get out of the way.

Our bodies mobilize our natural resources to help us move quickly. This is the flight reaction. We are literally fleeing, even if it’s only a few steps back to get out of the way of the bus. This is a normal adaptive response that helps us survive to live another day. What happens next is really interesting.

When Mental Stress Kicks In

Let’s go back to the scene of the averted disaster. We’re standing on the sidewalk and feeling all of the results of our body going into flight mode, our hearts racing, sweat’s pouring out, and then we start thinking, “Oh my goodness, I almost got hit by a bus. I could have been killed.”

Then our mind starts racing on and on, which makes our heartbeat even faster as we imagine we could have gotten killed. On top of that, if we’re the self-conscious type, we might even look around to see if anyone saw what happened and how much of an idiot we are. Can you relate?

Whether it’s an actual bus or something else that triggers that fight-and-flight reaction, it’s really important to be able to see the difference between that reaction and our reaction to that reaction.

We jump out of the way and then we freak out about it. This is the difference between helpful or adaptive stress and stress that can in itself ironically kill us. How can we tell the difference?

How To Tell The Difference Between Anxiety And Stress

The first clue is the timescale

Fight-or-flight usually happens pretty instantaneously. It is much faster than our conscious awareness, which is a good thing because if we waited for our minds to assess the situations and make decisions about what to do and then act on it, most of us would be dead by now.

Decision making is an extremely slow process on top of an already slow conscious attentional process compared to fight-or-flight, which acts basically at the level of reflex. We can see this even from the example. The freak out with our minds racing and us getting stressed happens not immediately, but a second or two after the event.

This difference is important because of two things. It shows us that these are different from each other and not the same thing and because they are different systems, they might have different effects.

Read more: Learn how being too busy poses dangers for our bodies, relationships, and lifestyles, and what you can do today to finally get well-deserved rest.

Mental Stress Limits Our Rationality

Jumping out of the way of the bus helps us survive. What does the thinking about what just happened do to us? Does it help us survive?

Well, this depends on us. If we examine what just happened from a rational decision making perspective, we can learn, “Oh wow, I almost died. Don’t do that again.” With this, we lay down a memory, learn to pay attention and look both ways before crossing streets in busy cities.

But do our minds do this? No. We just got a big adrenaline shot in our system.

We’ve got these fight-or-flight hormones racing through our veins. What are our minds doing? They’re freaking out and our untrained minds can’t be rational at times like this. Our minds race along with the adrenaline and can’t stop thinking about what just happened. This is the unhelpful type of stress. For simplicity sake, I’ll call it mental stress as compared to physiological stress. If our minds keep racing out of control, this can cause our bodies to react in a way in which they think we are still in danger.

From Mental Stress To Chronic Stress

Later, when we think back to that situation in the city, we might even get the same adrenaline rush because our bodies don’t know any better. They pump out more stress hormones when we think about it.

We learn to have a stress reaction even when we aren’t really in danger. This is where the irony of the situation comes in.

The more we get stressed, so to speak, the more we learn to live in a constant state of alert.

Over time, this can become habitual to the point where it might even be happening under the surface of our awareness. We’re walking down the street, not in any obvious danger, yet feeling like something isn’t quite right.

What used to be adaptive, helping us not get hit by buses now becomes chronic stress, which literally kills us over time.

If you feel chronically stressed, you know for yourself that this isn’t adding years to your life. It isn’t healthy at all.

When we’re constantly living in this type of chronic stress, are we possibly moving into the realm of anxiety?

So let’s unpack this a little bit more.

Worrying About Things We Have No Control Of

Let’s think of mental stress in our lives as having a clear trigger, something in our lives triggers us. We’re not in actual physical danger when we’re in our workplace, or at home in our living room. There’s no bus barreling down on us, but if we’ve got a bunch of kids or coworkers to manage, we might get a little stressed out. When we think of our to-do lists, we also might get stressed. This can kick us in the pants to get moving and do the things we need to do today.

Now, this point is really important:

Mental stress is usually triggered by something and we can alleviate it or make it go away by addressing these triggers at least some, and hopefully most of the time.

For example, stress triggered by your to-do list, what’s our stress reliever? Get those things done and then we feel better. What happens if we can’t get everything done or we have some stressor that’s beyond our control? Maybe it’s something that we don’t have control over, let’s say getting a promotion at work, or wondering if we’re doing a good job of raising our kids.

For example, “Oh well, my child will fit in and make friends at school or get into the college of her choice or whatever.” When we don’t have that much control, we might find ourselves learning other tricks to work with these triggers. We get stressed out and then have a glass of wine with our friends, or maybe binge-watch a television series on Netflix, or simply check our email inbox.

These types of distractions can help for a short while but don’t necessarily get at the root of the problem. This is where anxiety comes in.

The dictionary defines anxiety as a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

How is anxiety related to stress?

From Chronic Stress To Anxiety

Chronic stress can turn into anxiety. If we have a genetic predisposition or we were born anxious, our brains can even learn to become more and more anxious over time. The anxiety feeds on itself.

Those worry reactions that can be triggered by, for example, your to-do list start to grow and grow as our mind starts spinning out of control. For many of us with anxiety, over time it’s hard to pinpoint or identify what even triggered it. It may even feel like it’s been there forever.

For many of my clinic patients, they describe waking up in the morning and feeling anxious. If we go back to the definition of anxiety, that ‘something with an uncertain outcome’ may be their life.

Read more: Psychotherapist Andrea Wachter outlines two scenarios of dealing with morning anxiety.

How Does Your Mind Work?

The good news is that if we know how our minds work, we can begin to work with them. This is the critical first step towards stepping out of our old habits of stress and worry thinking and into a new way of being.

Yes, for those of us who have been stressed or anxious for years, it may seem impossible, but I’m here to tell you if our minds have learned to be anxious, they can unlearn this as well. Let’s start the process today.

You now know the difference between physiologic stress that helps us get out of the way of the bus and mental stress, that chatter in our minds that comments on how we almost just got hit by a bus.

You also now know how this can turn into anxiety. When we start worrying about things that we don’t have control over, whether it’s worrying about our children, our relationships, or our job. You can put this knowledge to good use by using it to learn how your mind works, you can turn this information into wisdom.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer speaks to this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Meditate with us: Explore our free library of 3.4k+ guided meditations for stress as well as guided meditations for anxiety.

Your Mission Today

Should you choose to accept it, see if you can identify one time during the day when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. At that moment, see if you can tell if it is stress as in ‘is there a trigger and does it go away when the trigger goes away?’ Is it anxiety as in ‘it’s just there.’

Here’s an example of the difference:

‘To-do list stress’ gets triggered by all the things we have to do today and then is lessened when we start checking off the list. While anxiety might be worrying about whether our kids are going to be happy when they grow up or our relationship is going to make it.

So just explore this. Is it stress? Is it anxiety?

Listen to these meditations led by Judson Brewer and start observing sensations in your body linked to emotions of stress and anxiety:

  1. Working with Stress Judson Brewer 10:29
  2. Working with Anxiety Judson Brewer 3:43

Judson Brewer kicks off his 10-day Insight course with this outline of the difference between stress and anxiety. In his course “Unwind Your Anxious Mind” you learn how to control your anxiety and feel better.

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