We often use “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably, to describe intense worry or emotional distress. But in reality, there are distinct differences between the two—for example, one is considered a healthy emotion that can be beneficial, while the other is considered an unhealthy emotion that is all-around harmful. Let’s explore these vital differences and make sure you’re managing the stress and/or anxiety in your life:

What Constitutes Stress?

First thing’s first: stress. In summary, stress is your body’s reaction to a threat. This threat could be a disagreement that’s creating a rift between you and your partner, traffic standing in the way of you making it to work on time, or even the scolding hot coffee that’s spilled on your lap. Stevon Lewis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, explains the functionality of this reaction:

“Stress is what we would refer to as a Healthy Negative Emotion (HNE). Some level of stress is useful as it motivates us to be focused, productive, and to execute tasks. At healthy levels, stress sends an alert, akin to a reminder, to attend to our own needs in order to continue meeting our responsibilities.” So, in looking back at the former example, stress would bring attention to the argument with your significant other and alert you to address this problem.

That said, there are also unhealthy levels of stress, which can come with negative consequences. If you don’t properly manage stress, you’re at risk of experiencing the following as a result:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems
  • Irritability
  • Sadness or depression
  • Headache
  • Anxiety

What Is Anxiety?

You might have noticed that the last item on the list above is anxiety. That’s because if you don’t address the source of your stress, it can turn into anxiety: an often intense, persistent worry about day to day events or situations. Lewis explains:

“Anxiety, on the other hand, is what we refer to as an Unhealthy Negative Emotion (UNE). Albert Ellis, founder of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), suggested that anxiety was a crisis of the imagination. We can worry ourselves sick thinking about the potentially negative, or unpleasant, outcomes of a situation that hasn’t happened yet. Anxiety is the uncontrolled rush of irrational thoughts that prevent us from thinking through situations. As a result, we end up in a state of hypervigilance (fight or flight); very helpful in instances when our survival is threatened, not so much when we are standing in line at Trader Joe’s.

Anxiety attacks, or panic attacks, can be triggered by any number of things (e.g., an exam, a presentation, a dog, high places, etc.) and are scary because of the fact that we aren’t usually aware of the irrational thoughts that precipitate them. The feeling suggests to us that we are in danger and can be very confusing if we cannot immediately identify any real threat. The body has the same response to a threat regardless of whether or not it was real or imagined. Untreated anxiety can evolve into a full-blown phobia or other anxiety-related disorder.”

Manage Stress and Anxiety Properly

The bottom line is that stress and anxiety can be harmful, if we fail to address and manage it properly. The good news is that you can make some healthy changes and introduce new practices into your life to manage stress and/or anxiety well. For example:

  • Do your best to stay positive.
  • Accept that there are things out of your control.
  • Meditate or perform other relaxation techniques as needed.
  • Seek out social support

Additionally, therapy or counseling can help you to manage stress and anxiety, of which involves “making us aware of our irrational thinking, providing us with evidence to challenge, or counter, our irrationality, and teach us skills to effectively reduce our anxiety and prevent it from becoming crippling,” as explained by Lewis.