Differences Between Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety Disorders

A mental disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Edition (DSM IV) is "a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress or disability or with significantly increased risk of suffering, death, pain, or disability, or an important loss of freedom." Anxiety disorders, specifically, are characterized by "abnormal or inappropriate anxiety" according to the DSM-IV, which describes six kinds of anxiety disorder.


Certain events or situations, including life changes (marriage, divorce or moving), relationship conflicts, or poverty, are typical stressors that may lead to stress. Stress may be defined as an internal physical experience (e.g., as muscle tension, headache, and fatigue) or cognitive experience (e.g., worry or lack of concentration), often in response to stressors. The cause, however, is found in our reaction to outside stressors and our own feelings of anxiety.

Distinguishing Features

Key distinctions between an anxiety disorder, a mental disorder, and stress can be made. Stress has identifiable stressors, while anxiety often seems unreasonable, with no clear source to both sufferer and others. Reaction to a perceived threat in the distant past place signals anxiety. Unlike stress, symptoms of anxiety persist independently of stressors. Those with anxiety disorders often feel anxious about feeling anxious, worrying about their condition. Anxiety typically interferes with everyday function; ordinary stress does not.


Anxiety is a mental disorder, stress is not. Although the same areas of the brain are involved in both, the amount of brain activity differs between healthy subjects and those with anxiety disorders. In people with post-traumatic stress disorder, the brain area called the hippocampus is smaller than in healthy brains.

Stress vs Anxiety

Diagnosis in the DSM-IV for Generalized Anxiety Disorder requires that symptoms persist for six months; a requirement that arose from concern with misdiagnosing stress as a mental illness. Stress and anxiety share many symptoms, but since stress resolves as stressors disappear, duration seemed a good distinction. Recently, however, increasing evidence suggests those who suffer symptoms for less than six months may very well have an anxiety disorder. Hence, now under-diagnosis and lack of treatment tops concerns over anxiety disorders. Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety, both physical (e.g., fast heartbeat, muscle tension, trouble concentrating and fatigue) and cognitive (e.g., difficulty concentrating). We also all experience stress, with similar symptoms. An anxiety disorder, however, has different implications for our health and quality of life and needs medical treatment. Distinguishing a disorder from stress has important consequences.