What’s the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?

The terms stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably.

To develop a deeper understanding of your mental wellbeing, it’s helpful to understand how they differ.


Kelly McGonigal, an expert in the new science of stress, offers us this definition: “Stress is what arises when something we care about is at stake”.

Many of us are now in positions where things that matter to us feel more uncertain, which understandably gives rise to our stress response.

Stress is best understood as a short-term response that manifests in the body.

It’s the racing heart, sweaty palms and funny tummy we’re all familiar with.

Experts agree that a core component of stress is the perception of threat and danger.

You’ve probably heard of the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response as a reaction to perceived danger. In fact, we have various stress responses. For example, there’s one response which encourages us to reach out for social support, called the ‘tend and befriend’ response.

Dr John Arden, author of several books integrating neuroscience and psychotherapy, recently put forward the term autostress for describing what happens when our body’s stress response goes on for a long time. He explains:

“Like autoimmune disorders that hijack the immune system, attacking the body instead of protecting it, autostress [transforms] the stress response system into something that attacks the self rather than protecting it.”

If you're in autostress mode, you’ll experience a wide range of physical symptoms on an ongoing basis, regardless of your situation.

That’s why people often report feeling anxious for no apparent reason.

If you’re suffering from high levels of distress triggered by the pandemic, you might continue to have physical symptoms for a while after the pandemic has passed.

Common Signs of Autostress:

  • Chest tightness and feeling like you can’t breathe
  • Muscle tension, aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Restlessness and an inability to relax
  • Heart palpitations
  • Digestive issues


Anxiety is commonly described as having both mental and physical symptoms.

The distinction between mental and physical anxiety is important because different tools are required for addressing the physical symptoms (what we label autostress – see above) and mental symptoms (what we label anxiety).

Anxiety is best described as the unhelpful thinking patterns we experience when our mind fixates on threat, uncertainty and negativity.

Anxiety can occur on its own, as a response to stress, or it can trigger stress.

When it occurs as a response to stress, it can intensify the stress, and, in worst cases, lead to panic attacks.

It’s important to understand that you cannot control anxiety from occurring – it's your brain’s automatic survival mechanism.

What matters is learning how to respond to anxiety helpfully, so that you don’t get carried away by it.

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Here are three examples of mental anxiety to look out for:

1. Hypothetical Worry

It’s important to note that worry is completely normal. It only becomes unhelpful when you focus excessively on hypothetical worries instead of practical worries.

Hypothetical worries include ‘what if’ thoughts and are typically about things you don’t have much control over.

Practical worries concern things you do have control over, and they can help you be more proactive.

If you’re very uncomfortable with uncertainty, you’re likely prone to hypothetical worry and spend a lot of time focused on the future instead of the present.


  • “I know I’m following all the guidelines, but what if I spread the virus?”
  • “What if someone gets too close to me at the supermarket and I catch it?”

2. Threat Scanning

This is when your mind searches the environment for what you fear (consciously or subconsciously).

Threat scanning is often associated with your mind assigning meaning to harmless events.


  • Frequently checking your body for coronavirus symptoms.
  • Obsessively checking the news for coronavirus updates.

3. Catastrophising

This is when your mind jumps to worst case scenarios, i.e., ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’.


  • You feel chest tightness and your mind tells you that you have coronavirus and that your life is in danger.
  • Your mind gives you the mental image of losing all the people you love.

As mentioned, the distinction between stress, physical anxiety/autostress and mental anxiety is important because different tools are required for dealing with them. Learn more about this in our free book The Framework.

This book used to be on Amazon. Now it's free!

Click here to get your copy.


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