What’s the difference between stress and anxiety?

Stress and anxiety are two physiological responses that you’ll have experienced before. In small quantities, they’re a normal part of daily life. They can even be helpful in getting us through challenging situations such as an important job interview or public performance. However, once stress and anxiety begin to run the show, it can be difficult to function at your best. 

In order to know how to deal with stress and anxiety, it’s important to understand the difference between the two. Although they share many signs and symptoms, their root cause is usually not the same. 

We’re going to take a look at how stress and anxiety differ, and how they can be dealt with.

What’s stress?

Stress is normally a response to external stressors, which can be either one-off or ongoing. These can include:

  • New-found responsibilities 
  • Sudden life changes such as bereavement, divorce, job loss, moving house or having a baby 
  • Financial difficulties or instability
  • Pressure from work
  • Strained family relationships or friendships

The first step to recognising stress is to notice its effect on your mind and body. Although the origin of stress is usually psychological, the signs of it often present as physical symptoms such as tense muscles, stomach problems and sweating. 
Chronic stress happens when the cause of your stress becomes long-term. Once our bodies keep regularly releasing the “stress hormones” cortisol and adrenaline, this can begin to have a detrimental effect on our health. It can even leave you more prone to catching illnesses as it weakens the response of your immune system and causes higher levels of inflammation.

What’s anxiety?

We’ve all experienced anxiety at one point or another. It’s our body’s natural response to protect us from potentially dangerous or harmful situations.

Anxiety as a mental health disorder, however, is something different. It’s only when your symptoms of anxiety are ongoing and debilitating that it becomes a real problem 

The first step to understanding the type of anxiety you’re experiencing is to understand its cause and symptoms. 

The different types of anxiety include:

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

A non-specific type of anxiety that’s present almost all the time. If you’re experiencing this, you’ll probably find yourself constantly worrying about anything and everything, often for no apparent reason.

Panic disorder

Panic attacks are the main symptom of panic disorder. They might appear suddenly or as a result of a certain trigger, and can be incredibly distressing. Although panic attacks can present as shortness of breath, a racing heart and chest pain, they can also show up as nausea, chills and sweating.

Social anxiety

We all worry about social situations from time to time, but with social anxiety this fear is pretty much constant. It can become so debilitating that you’re unable to talk in front of other people, or even eat and drink in public.

Health anxiety

A form of anxiety which has become especially prevalent during the pandemic, health anxiety is characterised by excessive health worries. This preoccupation is often accompanied by fixation on a specific type of illness, whereby any harmless symptoms are interpreted as cause for concern.


There are several different types of phobia, including everything from a severe fear of needles to extreme panic at the idea of going to the dentist. Even though these fears may seem irrational to people who don’t experience them, they’re incredibly distressing and overwhelming for the sufferer. Whilst we all have fears, you may want to look at getting support if your phobia is stopping you from living your life freely.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

The result of trauma from a one-off or ongoing event, PTSD can have a devastating impact on someone’s life. It’s often accompanied by nightmares or flashbacks, sleeping problems, feelings of guilt and uncontrollable negative thoughts.

How are they different?

Stress is usually the result of external factors, whereas anxiety comes from within. Anxiety is all about your individual response to stress, and persists even after the stressor is no longer present. 

Although they’re both different, similar strategies can help you whether you’re suffering from stress or anxiety. These include:

  • Improving the quality of your sleep.
  • Sharing worries and concerns with someone you trust.
  • Regular physical activity.
  • A balanced and nutritious diet.

Fight, Flight, Freeze

For all the differences between stress and anxiety, they can be traced back to the same bodily survival instinct known as “fight, flight, or freeze.”

When your body senses danger, such as a fast-approaching car or a threatening animal, it triggers your autonomic nervous system. This speeds up your heart rate and your breathing, causes your muscles to tense and slows down your digestion (which often leads to an upset stomach).

Recognise these symptoms? You’ve probably experienced them before, but might not have recognised them as your body’s automatic stress response. They can rear their ugly head in even the most “minor” of situations where your body perceives a threat, such as during an argument, in a crowded space or before public speaking. 

So how do these three different stress responses work?


With the “fight” response, you’ll find your body preparing itself for a physical confrontation when it senses danger. You might experience strong feelings of anger, and feel the need to attack whatever it is that’s threatening you.


A sudden surge of adrenaline gives your body the energy to run away from danger as fast as possible. This happens when your mind believes that confronting the threatening situation is too risky for your safety.


If you find yourself unable to move when you feel threatened, trapped in place physically and mentally, this is the “freeze” response. It might be accompanied by feelings of numbness and a sense of dread.

How Ed can Help

No matter how minor or severe your anxiety or stress is, Ed can Help you to regain control over your wellbeing. Talking therapy can be expensive and have a long waiting list, but a subscription to our sound-based therapy app is quick and affordable.

Just 20 minutes spent listening to one of our therapy sessions helps to untangle difficult thoughts and feelings, resetting your mind to its natural state of peace and happiness. Each session can be accessed whenever and wherever you need – simply find a quiet space, plug in your headphones and let the sound get to work.  

Ready to see how Ed can Help you?
Start your 7-day free trial today on Android or IOS.