The differentiation between stress & anxiety

Whether it is in sport, studies, work or recreation, stress is a common experience throughout our human life and not everybody experiences stress the same way. This is what makes stress highly subjective. Imagine six people riding a rollercoaster, some may appear very anxious and fearful while others might be in pure euphoria and excitement. Same situation with six people having different experiences which results in many definitions of streses. However, when it comes to scientists studying stress, a common agreement of what that experience is needs to be reached.

The many definitions of stress defines stress as, “any change in the environment that requires your body to react and adjust in response.” While the Medical Dictionary by the Free Dictionary Farlex defines stress as, “an organism’s total response to environmental demands or pressures.” E. Adenike Emeke (2006, p. 48-58) reveals that stress is the “activation of the “danger alarm” system of the brain… that will produce the fight or flight response.”

Other definitions are “a series of stages of physiological and concurrent reactions to noxious events that might be prolonger over periods of months or years” (Selye 1976), or “an unsettling reaction to external and internal factors” (Pagman 2006). Finally, “physiological response to the perceived task or situational demands, relative to the available resources to cope with the demands” (Stickes & Kite 2001).

Common Themes

From the definitions presented, there are some common themes where stress occurs from a change, demand or challenge. It can be internal, happening within our body and mind, or external, something happening in our environment. It is a cognitive, emotional and physiological experience with short-term reactions or long-term responses.


Anxiety ivolves fear, worry or the experience of being threatened and it is a closely aligned with stress but differs. Anxiety is induced by a vague stimulus with an irrational aversive response that arises from insufficient ability or resource to cope with the environmental internal or task-related demands.

Commonly coined as “choking under pressure.” Choking is defined as performance decrements under pressure siutations by Baumeister (1984, p. 610). In a situation where someone would perform quite highly, due to anxiety of the pressure situation, instead they would experience significant performance loss.

Two types of Anxiety

State AnxietyTrait Anxiety
Transient emotional state associated with feelings of tension and apprehension
Fluctuates and intensity varies
Tendency to respond with state anxiety to perceived threats
Relatively stable individual characteristc

It is essential to differentiate between the two types of anxiety. State anxiety is transient, meaning it is a temporary emotional state associated with feelings of tension and apprehension. In addition, it fluctuates, changes and its intensity can vary. On the other hand, trait anxiety is a tendency to respond with state anxiety, or perceived threats. Trait anxiety is long-lasting, relatively stable, and considered as an individual characteristic. It is known that individuals with higher trait anxiety are typically associated with higher state anxiety.

Differentiating Stress & Anxiety

StressAnxiety (state or trait)
distress and eustressdistress
adaptive, increased readinessaversive
capacity to adapt or copecapacity to adapt or cope is exceeded

Stress involves distress, or negative stress, and eustress, positive stress. The reaction associated with stress is adaptive, and it can be increased readiness to respond or to meet the demands of the situation or the task. Thus, stress is the capacity to adapt or cope.

Coversely, anxiety is typically associated with distress, the negative stress, the extent that people become aversive and try to avoid the situation or demands of the task. Typically, anxiety arises when the capacity to adapt or cope is exceeded.

While anxiety is differentiated into two different concepts, we must consider their relations to each other. Below is the transactional model of stress, the primary and secondary appraisal mechanisms intervene with the stressor and the reaction to that stressor, which is stress. In addition, there is trait anxiety, which is the individual disposition that influences the primary appraisal and secondary appraisal processes. Those with higher trait anxiety have a tendency to appraise the primary processes of stress as being negative. Moreover, those with higher trait anxiety tend to undertake secondary appraisal, where they automatically deem that they do not have sufficient resource to cope with the demand. Due to higher trait anxiety, than the reaction, the stress, typically results with higher state anxiety, and that distress, or a feeling or aversion to the situation or task.


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Emeke, E.A. (2006) Stress Syndrome: Cause, Symptoms and Coping Strategies. International Journal of African & African American Studies, 5(2), 48:58.

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