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Stress vs Anxiety: What’s the difference?

Written by Samantha Odake, BS | Last updated:

Are you anxious, or are you stressed? Knowing the distinction can help you better understand and address your symptoms. But what are the differences between stress vs anxiety? Read on to find out more about stress and anxiety, and how your genes may play a role.

An introduction to stress vs anxiety

Life is full of stressful events – whether in a job, relationships, or a worldwide pandemic – there are plenty of stressful stimuli that we experience [1].

The question becomes, how can you recognize the difference between feeling nervous or anxious? What is the difference between stress and anxiety? It may be difficult initially to distinguish between the two. Let’s explore this idea here.

Stress and anxiety are often associated with each other, but they are not synonymous. Here’s a sneak peek at the answer for you: stress is an external reaction to an event, while anxiety is your internal reaction to the stress.

Stress usually dissipates when the eventful stimuli cease – like how you feel relief after completing a hard test in school. However, anxiety can manifest even when there is no harmful event present. Anxiety is characterized as a constant feeling of apprehension that can interfere with functions in your daily life [1].

What is stress?

Before explaining the difference between stress vs anxiety, it’s important to understand each condition separately.

Stress is a physiological response to an imminent threat, either physical or psychological [2]. The body feels stress when homeostasis is disrupted. A physical stressor could be a car accident, where the threat of critical blood loss is immediate [2,3,4].

On the other hand, psychological stressors can be the threat of future danger, which causes anticipation [5,6,7]. Anticipation is the common link between stress and anxiety.

Research shows that one of the most impactful ways to reduce stress is a positive mindset. Proper perspective and positive thinking has been shown to minimize stress and even add years to your life [8,9,10]. This makes sense since stress has been linked to overall mortality and a shortened lifespan [11].

But when it comes to your susceptibility to stress and how well you respond to these stress-busting strategies, your genetics may play a role.

One gene that determines how we deal with stressful stimuli is OPRM1, which has been associated with pain relief. OPRM1 is a gene that encodes for an opioid receptor that interacts with both natural and medicinal opioids.

Activation of this gene promotes the release of dopamine and is a strong positive motivator for reward-seeking activities [12,13,14]. Variants in OPRM1 can be linked to poor stress management due to a change in cortisol reactivity of the receptor [15].

Now that we have covered stress, let’s take a closer look at anxiety.

What is anxiety?

Like we touched on earlier, anxiety is a mental disorder associated with emotional distress and a harmful situation that has a low probability of occurrence [5,16]. Anxiety is characterized as hypervigilance and overwhelming anticipation to a perceived threat.

Anxiety can either be a state or a persistent personality trait. State anxiety is an acute, temporary reaction that will subside over time. Trait anxiety is more considered part of someone’s personality and chronically present throughout their life [5,17].

Regardless, your genetics can play a role in anxiety. In fact, we know that 30-67% of the differences in people’s chances of getting anxiety can be due to their genetic makeup.

There is mounting evidence for a variety of genes that influence susceptibility for anxiety – we will talk about one here.

An example of a gene that influences anxiety is MC4R. MC4R encodes for a receptor that controls the release of cortisol, our body’s stress hormone [18]. Variants of MC4R can lead to an overproduction of cortisol by increased activity of the receptor. This tracks with individuals with stress-induced anxiety, as their cortisol levels are often higher than normal [19,20,21].

What is the difference between stress and anxiety?

To recap, stress is usually a direct response to an outside event – a feeling that often ceases when the outside threat is no longer present. However, anxiety could be an underlying byproduct of a stress response.

It is important to note that anxiety could be caused by either a real or imagined threat. Those with anxiety disorders often feel a constant apprehension, even when no threat is present.

So, stress and anxiety may seem similar but are actually two different reactions to harmful stimuli. However, our genetic makeup can affect both simultaneously.

How genetics influence stress and anxiety

One gene that influences both stress and anxiety is TENM4, which is responsible for regulating the response to stress and fear in your brain. This is done by TENM4 controlling proper brain development and nerve communication [22].

A variation in this gene is known to be associated with anxiety by affecting proper function in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear and stress [23].

Another gene that can play a role is PITX1, which affects stress response by dictating the production of stress-related hormones – like cortisol and its precursor Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) [24]. One PITX1 gene variant results in an impaired stress response, which can lead to an increased risk for developing anxiety [25].

The good news is that, even if your genes make you more predisposed to feeling nervous or anxious, there are steps you can take to optimize your mental health.

If you’re wondering what your genes have to say about your response to stress and anxiety, you should check out SelfDecode.

The SelfDecode Anxiety Report analyzes over 800,000 genetic variants that affect anxiety to give you a personalized report with prioritized health recommendations you can implement right away.

Stress vs anxiety DNA report

What’s more, SelfDecode also offers a Stress DNA Report that looks at over 380,000 genetic variants to help you learn what stress-busting strategies work best for you based on your genes. Unlike other DNA companies that only look at a few SNPs, SelfDecode gives you the most complete picture of your health.

Anxiety vs stress report

With SelfDecode, you’ll receive a list of what you should and should not do to help you achieve optimal health. Not only that, you can easily see what recommendations work better for you based on your unique genetic makeup.

Concluding remarks about stress and anxiety

Now that you know the difference between stress vs anxiety, you may find it easier to distinguish between the two. Both can be very debilitating, so knowing how to deal with them can be an advantage when it comes to improving your overall well-being.

Your DNA can play a role in your response to stress and anxiety. By understanding what your genetic predispositions are, you can make targeted changes to your lifestyle to help your mental health. For a gene-based approach, you should check out SelfDecode.

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About the Author

Samantha Odake

Samantha Odake

Samantha is an engineer turned writer with a passion for helping people.


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