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Anxiety and stress: the difference

20 August 2021 Blog
Mental health
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health conditions in our community.

According to recent statistics, one in eight Australians between the ages of 18-65 have or are currently experiencing anxiety-related conditions in the past twelve months. These conditions include obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias such as fear of heights or spiders.

For many, the terms anxiety and stress describe the same cluster of symptoms and, in many cases, are used interchangeably in everyday language as if they describe the same thing.

But are they the same?

Not really.

In short, stress is anything someone perceives as threatening. Anything from a cobra waiting in your path ready to attack or an out-of-control fire signaling you to flee from your home. The term “perceives” is essential because perception can vary significantly between people. “Your body reacts to your perception of a threat – not to the reality,” says Christopher Fagundes, associate professor of Psychology at Rice University in Texas. Thus, the intensity and duration of stress-related responses on the body are different for everyone.

However, anxiety is like an “internal alarm” (Heid, 2021, para. 9)1 going off even without a physical threat present. For example, say you have a major exam coming up at the end of the week, and every time you think about this exam, your body taps into its immunological stress response. Even when the exam is cancelled or never required to undertake – meaning that there will never be a scenario where you are confronted with the source of your anxiety – your body is still worn out by the effects of stress.   

Looking at the difference between stress and anxiety, it may seem strange that our bodies would react with the same systems when confronted with a far-away exam as when it protects us from physical, in-the-moment danger. But evolution and history answer this mechanism. In the past, social isolation and conflict were potentially very dangerous as they could lead to starvation if isolated from the group or death by grave insult if conflict erupted. Our brains and bodies developed a way to scan our environment. Early humans who possessed a degree of anxiety to safeguard themselves against potentially threatening situations had a higher survival rate than their counterparts who could not care less. Survival of the fittest meant that the humans with the anxiety genes lived to pass their genes to the next generations.

However, not all anxiety and stress are harmful or unwanted. Sometimes it can be beneficial for our survival. It helps to anticipate and react to trouble. But when stress and anxiety run riot in our bodies, healing and restorative processes are disturbed, and immunological stress responses heighten.  Therefore, learning to manage our anxiety and stress responses well is key to maintaining good health. Make time for close friends and family, laughing big, joyous belly laughs, physical exercise, and meditation are proven to relax the body and the mind.

St John of God Murdoch Hospital's mental health services

St John of God Murdoch Hospital is set to provide outpatient (day) services for adult patients with a referral from early 2022.

Find out more.

  1. Heid, M. (2021, September). Rising to the challenge. Health Special Edition. Managing Stress. Understand it. Avoid it. Put it to use. https://www.ebay.com/itm/124788764137
Monica Taylor
Monica Taylor - Deputy Director of Nursing – Mental Health

Monica is an experienced nurse with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital and health care industry. Her passion and specialisations lie in patient safety, mental health, healthcare management and organisational development.