Stress and Anxiety: A Difference of Perception

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While holding similarities, stress and anxiety are differentiated in several ways. According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, stress is defined as “the pattern of specific and nonspecific responses a person makes to stimulus events that disturb his or her equilibrium and tax or exceed his or her ability to cope.” Stress is not necessarily negative or positive; stress can produce motivation and result in productivity.

Alternatively, the DSM defines anxiety as, “the apprehensive anticipation of future danger or misfortune accompanied by a feeling of worry, distress, and/or somatic symptoms of tension. The focus of anticipated danger may be internal or external.”

Stress overwhelms one’s ability to cope with external, present circumstances, while anxiety is often future focused and internally experienced.  

Alicia H. Clark, a psychologist specializing in anxiety articulates, “Stress tends to flow from the experience of pressure (think work deadline, a friend’s request, traffic slowing you, etc), whereas anxiety tends to relate to our feelings about our potential experience and how we will cope (think internal questions like, Will I be able to handle it? Can I do this? Do I want to?). If stress fundamentally refers to our experience under pressure, anxiety relates to our feelings about that experience.

One can experience a stressful circumstance without experiencing anxiety. That said, stress often plays a significant role with one’s experience of anxiety.

Stress affects anxiety. It is possible to experience stress without anxiety? One may feel and acknowledge the pressure of a demand (a deadline for work) without experiencing anxiety resulting from the pressure of a deadline. An employee may find motivation in the stress of finalizing a project without engaging in anxious thoughts and feelings. A student at school may realize the pressure of a coach on a sports team without internalizing the stress in an anxious way.

The differentiation between stress and anxiety begs a question: What steps can be taken to mitigate the impact of stress on one’s experience of anxiety? In other words, how can stress be thought about, conceptualized, and interacted with in a helpful way?

While stress almost inevitably impacts anxiety, the degree to which it influences anxiety can be managed to a certain extent.

How one perceives and frames stress influences the result of associated anxiety. One’s perception and definition of their emotions result in one’s experience of emotions. The perceived ability to hold and manage stress influences the degree of anxiety experienced. Catastrophic thinking, for example, may increase anxiety. Allowing the mind to ruminate and focus on the worst possible situations and consider uncontrollable factors may increase anxiety, while turning the mind to simply the next step may serve to lessen and regulate the internal experience of anxiety.

Let’s discuss a few practical examples. Stress about a work deadline today can fuel anxiety over future deadlines. Traffic stress this morning can have you fretting over how you will handle the rest of your day, and your commute home. Realistic stress due to pressured circumstances can lead to productive problem solving or unproductive worry.

According to the recent science, our experience of emotions follows how we think about and define them. As we label what we are experiencing, we co-create it. Individuals hold incredible power to influence their emotional experience by changing thoughts and perceptions of an experience. While one’s experience of anxiety is a result of biological, genetic, social and environmental factors, it can be helpful to consider the one’s interaction with stressful thoughts and events as it relates to the internal experience of anxiety.

When you mindfully notice a stressful event triggering an increase in anxiety, you may find it helpful to consider the following questions:

  • Are my anxious thoughts centered on finding a solution or do they dwell on factors out of my control?

  • Are my thoughts regarding stress realistic, helpful, in line with facts and focused on reality?

  • What aspects of my stressful situation can I influence and perhaps lessen and how does this impact my experience of anxiety?

  • What is my perspective on my stressful situation, and are there other perspectives to consider?

  • What are realistic expectations concerning my stressful situation and are any unrealistic expectations increasing an experience of anxiety?


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Victoria Barrett is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor passionate about coming alongside you in your journey toward a life of greater healing, joy and abundance. Victoria uses various expressive and creative therapies to aid her clients in healing from trauma, adjustment disorders, attachment issues, anxiety, depression, and more.

Victoria also loves adventure in the great outdoors, in cooking, in traveling and in discovering good live music.  Click here to learn more about working with Victoria.

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