Stressed, anxious or distressed?

21 May 2021

At times, everyone feels stressed or anxious. But how do you tell the difference? And how do you know when those feelings are leading you to distress?

Stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”, whereas anxiety is “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome”. When these feelings are extreme, they can lead to distress.

The difference between stress and anxiety

Stress is usually short term, and caused by a recognised threat, deadline, or stressor. These are usually external causes. When the thing that is causing you stress has passed, your symptoms of stress will also pass.

Anxiety, on the other hand, can be longer term and the trigger/cause is not always identifiable as they can be internal issues. Even when there is no stressor present, you may still experience anxiety symptoms.

The symptoms of stress and anxiety are similar, with the key difference being the length of time they are present for. Common symptoms include:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Fast breathing
  • Stomach issues (diarrhoea or constipation)
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Racing thoughts
  • Headaches and body aches


In addition to these, if you are experiencing stress you may experience:

  • Anxious thoughts
  • Changes in your mood such as being more irritable or angry
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

If you have anxiety, you may experience:

  • Sweating
  • Nervousness
  • Tenseness
  • A feeling of dread or unease

Managing stress and anxiety

When it comes to managing your symptoms of stress and anxiety, there are some things that can be helpful for both. More intense interventions are available for anxiety due to it’s longer lasting effect.

  • Relaxation strategies such as breathing exercises and yoga
  • Exercise and balanced lifestyle, reducing caffeine
  • Talking about it and keeping a journal
  • Mindfulness exercises such as body scans and guided imagery
  • Spending time with loved ones

When does stress or anxiety become distress?

When your stress and anxiety (the feelings or symptoms) start interfering with your normal functioning, you may be experiencing distress.

At this point, your usual coping mechanisms may not be working as well as they usually do. This is when professional assistance can be very valuable. Seeing a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental healthcare professional can help you with tools to improve your distress and your functioning. This may be a combination of medication and therapy, depending on what you are experiencing. This can help to address the underlying cause as well.

Along with the professional assistance, implementing the coping strategies above can help you to see an improvement in your symptoms and functioning.

You don’t need to deal with this alone. There are many options available for help so that you can return to your best version of you!

Have a listen to one of our guided imagery/mindfulness activities, overcoming anxiety with my thoughts, here.

Written by:

Megan Hosking, Psychiatric Intake Clinician