In common parlance, people use “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably. Even mental health organizations tend to lump the two together.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), for example, has resources to help people manage “anxiety and stress.” But it takes some digging on the ADAA site to find an explanation for how the two differ, and that explanation is also unhelpfully brief: “Stress is a response to a threat in a situation. Anxiety is a reaction to the stress.”
Even among psychiatrists and psychologists, “there is not widespread agreement on how to contrast these two concepts,” says Richard Maddock, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Davis. While both stress and anxiety can produce similar responses in the human body — responses that are associated with a range of health conditions, including depression and heart disease — they’re not the same, Maddock says.
Stress is a broader concept than anxiety, he says. Stress can be either psychological or physical and either good or bad. Maddock points to exercise as a form of physical stress that, while challenging to the body, can result in positive changes. Similarly, some people relish the short-term stress associated with public performances or other pressure-packed situations.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is always psychologically driven and always unpleasant, he says. Anxiety has three essential components. The first is a perception of some sort of threat — either real or imagined. (That threat could be a turbulent flight or just the prospect of a turbulent flight.) The second component, Maddock says, is “a sense that it is necessary to respond to the threat or to do something about it.” The third is “a sense that one lacks the capacity to adequately respond to the threat.” This feeling of helplessness is important; when people feel prepared to meet a challenge or threat, that sense of preparedness tends to quell anxiety.
Another helpful way to differentiate between the two is to think of stress as something that is triggered by an external challenge, while anxiety is born in the mind. “Stress is…