In today’s world there is a focus on relieving stress and anxiety; however these terms are often used interchangeably. This can cause some confusion, especially when trying to implement remedies. Knowing the difference between these two is the first step towards alleviating stress and anxiety.
Many psychologists make a distinction between fear and anxiety. Fear they see as a reaction to a real threat. Anxiety they see as feeling much like fear but can occur without specific cause. In other words, anxiety is associated with perceived threats, before the fact, in anticipation of events or situations that might happen and if/when they do will most likely be unpleasant.
Stress, on the other hand, is a response to a situation or events that did happen; events that may or may not be unpleasant. A near car collision occurs; an unpleasant event; or a surprise birthday gathering, with old friends attending; a usually pleasant event. But, in either case, afterwards, one may feel weak in the knees and emotionally drained. This is a picture of short-term emergency stress. Of course, there are also longer-term situations that produce stress — the long drive in heavy traffic commuting to work, worrying about the family budget or financial setbacks, everyday job demands, or an currently ailing parent, to name but a few. Note, that all these examples are events that have taken place; they did occur.
A further definition of anxiety is a diffused feeling of dread, apprehension, and impending catastrophe. Some people confuse the feeling of anxiety with the feeling of fear. Anxiety differs from fear on several counts. Although both are reactions to danger, in the case of fear the danger is external and directly perceived. In anxiety, the source is primarily internal and largely, not wholly unrecognized. Typically, fear is an intense response to a clear and present danger. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a pervasive uneasiness experienced when we are threatened by unknown dangers from outside ourselves, or unconscious conflicts and impulses within ourselves. Coincidently, it may trigger the same reaction as in the case of stage fright or spotty memory. A strong arousal caused by fear or anxiety, swamps the cortex, in extreme cases knocking out the ability to respond rationally. Panic ensues; one runs or is rooted to the spot, and forgets their well-rehearsed lines.
Anxiety, according to Freud, is related to the conflict between the ego and the id, between mediation with reality and instinctual drives. In the Freudian view, the buildup of psychological and emotional energy within the mind is unpleasant and leads to attempts to discharge or contain it. As the buildup of energy continues, it becomes too much to be handled in either manner, thus creating a state of unpleasantness. This state of unpleasantness was called by Freud a traumatic state, and the event causing it a traumatic event. The emotion felt while in the traumatic state, Freud called anxiety. Freud thought that anxiety set in action defense mechanisms by which the ego opposes the id wishes. These action defenses include denial, identification, intellectualization, isolation, projection, repression, and undoing, to name a few common examples. In a further separation between anxiety and fear, Freud defines anxiety as having to do with one’s inner feelings, in contrast to fear which has to do with objective things.
Stress is defined as: The psychological and physiological result of an appraisal of a situation by an individual as likely to have harmful effects for him/herself according to the Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. In the most general sense, the term stress is used to refer to a situation in which a person is overtaxed in some way. However, within this very general framework, a number of specific definitions have evolved, each emphasizing a different aspect of the overtaxing situation, but basically consistent with one another. Each of these definitions also involves explicit or implicit reference to strain — the negative, or pathological, outcome of stress.
Many experts place a great importance on the subject of stress which they see as one of the most urgent problems of our day. Clinical experience has proved to psychologists and psychiatrists alike that the central problem in psychotherapy is the nature of anxiety. To the extent that we have been able to solve that problem, we have made an initial first step in understanding the causes of integration and disintegration of personality.
Differences between the two (Anxiety and Stress)
Some experts use the terms interchangeability. Other experts take a determined stand against the use of stress as a synonym for anxiety, I will argue against the identification of stress as being the same as anxiety, and will hold that stress is not an adequate substitute for describing the apprehension we ordinarily refer to as anxiety. Stress (as used in the 1950’s in the field of psychology) is borrowed from other scientific fields (engineering and physics), and has gained popularity because it is easy to define, can be readily adapted, and suitably measured, all of which are difficult with the word anxiety. The problem with the term stress as synonym for anxiety is that it puts the emphasis on what happens to the person, while anxiety has to do with one’s inner feelings. Anxiety is uniquely bound up with consciousness and subjectivity.
One rather important point: if the popularity of thinking stress and anxiety are interchangeable, and that is, if we lump both of these together, we will have lost a crucial distinction of our understanding. I believe that it is important to distinguish the difference between the two, not only for proper identification purposes, but also for implementing the correct remedy to alleviate anxiety and stress.
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