Difference between Stress and Anxiety

Updated on February 14, 2018

Stress and anxiety are both human emotions associated with negativity and turmoil in various life circumstances. They are similar, and in many ways inform one another, but are two different things. This article will help explain the differences.


Stress is a feeling of psychological pressure one experiences when confronted with some sort of significant life circumstance. Stress is not always negative: eustress is known as the stress one experiences when beneficial life events occur. For example, a woman who gets a prestigious dream job will feel a great deal of positive stress. Negative stress is called distress, but is usually referred to as just stress. The most basic definition of stress is the feeling one experiences when obstacles in life exceed one’s capability to cope with them. The thing making a person feel stressed is known as a stressor.

Anxiety is a feeling of general apprehension or unease, often towards a future event. When anxiety occurs frequently and is disrupting a person’s life, it is called an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is often accompanied by a feeling of impending hardship, doom, or adverse event, or the feeling that some future event will cause everything to go wrong. With that said, anxiety can sometimes have an unknown source to the person suffering from it, and this is indeed quite common. Anxiety can also be caused by stressors: if a person is stressed about something in their life that affects their life’s future, they will feel anxious about the future.

Comparison chart

Psychological pressure due to life circumstancesApprehension or unease, usually about a future event.
Has positive and negative components (eustress/distress)Only has negative components
Usually has a clear source (stressor)Does not always have a clear source
Can cause anxiety, but is not caused by anxiety.Can be caused by stress, but does not result in stress.

Stress vs Anxiety

What is the difference between Stress and Anxiety? The main differences are:

  • The reasons stress or anxiety occur.
  • Positive and negative components.

Stress occurs because of certain life circumstances; it is experienced when someone feels that the obstacles in their life exceed their capability to cope with or mitigate them. Anxiety, on the other hand, does not always have a clear reason for occurring, but usually indicates an feeling of apprehension about a future event. Anxiety can occur as a by-product of stress, but stress rarely if ever occurs as a by-product of anxiety.

Additionally, stress has positive and negative components. The word stress commonly refers to distress, the negative component of stress. The positive component is known as eustress. Eustress is psychological pressure that occurs from good things happening in life. Distress is psychological pressure that occurs from bad things. Anxiety does not have any positive components. Positive life events can cause nervousness, but not the dread or apprehension of anxiety.

A few examples below illustrate stress and anxiety.

Mary gets her dream job as a prosecutor. She is very happy to have gotten the job, and at first she experiences a kind of euphoria, or eustress.  However in time her work piles up so much that she feels she can’t cope with the pressure – she is overwhelmed.  Thus she becomes stressed (now she is suffering distress).

Michael has a good job that he really likes, but he knows some employees are going to be made redundant, and as he was hired recently he may be the next to be fired.  This causes him great anxiety, because he doesn’t know whether or not he will get fired, nor does he know what he will do next.

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