A Simple Way to Explain the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

Since I’ve started taking medication to manage my anxiety, I’ve had the pleasure of feeling — for the first time in a long time — stressed without feeling anxious.

That’s right — I was pumped to feel pure stress, untainted by thought patterns related to anxiety and depression.

Because “anxiety” and “stress” are often used interchangeably and because everyday stressors can make you feel anxiety, I wanted to explain what this difference means for me — because as someone whose anxiety has hijacked most of my “normal” stress reactions for a while now, this difference is not subtle. It’s significant.

So here, in two scenes, I want to take you into my head and hopefully explain the different between stress and anxiety.

SCENE I: Anxiety


A woman sits at her desk and opens her laptop. Immediately tension creeps up her back. She feels like a balloon is being blown up in her chest. 


I have too many emails. I have too many emails. I can’t believe I let my emails get this bad. No one else has this many emails. I’m so bad at time management. I’m so bad at my job. Everyone’s going to find out I’m not really good at this job. I’m just a fake. Everyone’s going to find out. I’m letting down everyone. I don’t deserve this job. I’m letting so many people down. I can’t believe I let it get this bad. I deserve nothing. I’m a worthless piece of shit. I should kill myself. I want to kill myself. I want to kill myself…

End scene.

SCENE II: Stress


A woman sits at her desk and opens her laptop.


I have too many emails. It’s frustrating that I have too many emails. It’s unfair I’m not responding to everyone in a timely manner. This is stressful.

Woman starts answering emails.

End scene.

To me, feeling purely stressed without interference from anxiety means experiencing tension about a task at hand — without spiraling and questioning the meaning of my existence and the value of my worth. I have to admit, it’s nice. It doesn’t fix all my problems or make stress go away, but managing my anxiety with medication has given me a little more headspace to deal with these stressors straight on, which is a welcomed change.

So next time someone explains to you that they’re feeling anxious, understand it might be more than a “typical” reaction to a stressor. In fact, anxiety doesn’t even always need a stressor at all. And while I know I can never avoid a life without stress, I’ll take a life with less anxiety.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via Favor_of_God

A Simple Way to Explain the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

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