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The answers of this question, which are partly based on this website, explain that a prolonged stress is called anxiety.

But that is also the definition of chronic stress.

So what is the difference between anxiety and chronic stress?

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Chronic stress, as defined in the field of psychology, refers to a state of ongoing physiological arousal that occurs in response to prolonged exposure to stressful situations or stressors. These stressors can be external, such as financial hardship or work-related stress, or internal, such as chronic health conditions. According to the allostatic load model, chronic stress can cause a constant activation of the body's stress response systems, leading to wear and tear that can have significant negative impacts on physical and mental health over time.

In contrast, anxiety, as outlined in the DSM-5, encompasses a range of disorders characterized by feelings of excessive and persistent fear, worry, and nervousness. Unlike the relatively clear and identifiable stressors involved in chronic stress, anxiety disorders often involve fears and worries about potential future threats or negative outcomes, which may not be based on reality. Anxiety disorders, according to the DSM-5, include disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and various phobia-related disorders, each with their unique diagnostic criteria.

While both chronic stress and anxiety involve sustained physiological arousal, there are key differences in their cognitive and emotional profiles. Chronic stress is typically tied to identifiable stressors and may not involve significant disruptions in cognitive processes apart from the preoccupation with the ongoing stressors. On the other hand, anxiety disorders involve cognitive processes such as excessive worry, anticipation of future threats, and avoidance behaviors, which can significantly interfere with a person's daily functioning and quality of life.

In the psychotherapeutic context, these differences between chronic stress and anxiety are important because they guide treatment approaches. Chronic stress may be addressed by helping individuals manage stressors, build resilience, and develop coping strategies, often involving stress management techniques, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and possibly changes in lifestyle and environment.

Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, are often treated with a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps individuals identify and change thought patterns that lead to anxiety, exposure therapy for confronting feared situations, and in some cases, medication.

It's crucial to remember that while chronic stress and anxiety can overlap, they are distinct phenomena that require different therapeutic approaches. Always, the first step in treatment is a thorough diagnostic evaluation to accurately identify the problem and guide the selection of the most effective treatment strategies.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer, thank you very much. One remark though: "Chronic stress (...) may not involve significant disruptions in cognitive processes" if I am not mistaken, chronic stress is associated with depression (and anxiety), which can involve significant disruptions in cognitive processes, no? $\endgroup$
    – Starckman
    Jul 15, 2023 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, you are absolutely correct. My previous statement may have been somewhat simplified. Chronic stress indeed can have significant cognitive impacts. It can lead to problems such as difficulty concentrating, decision-making challenges, and memory issues. Moreover, chronic stress is indeed a risk factor for developing mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, both of which are characterized by significant cognitive disruptions. $\endgroup$ Jul 15, 2023 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ So is "significant disruptions in cognitive processes" still a criterion to distinguish between anxiety and chronic stress? If not, then the only difference would be the presence of identifiable stressors. $\endgroup$
    – Starckman
    Jul 16, 2023 at 2:33
  • $\begingroup$ Dear Starckman, I think that significant disruptions in cognitive processes is not a definitive criterion to distinguish between anxiety and chronic stress, as both conditions can cause such disruptions. The context and perceived control over stressors are more reliable distinguishing factors. $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2023 at 5:09
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    $\begingroup$ The "context" pertains to the situations or stimuli inciting the stress or anxiety response. In chronic stress, context is often characterized by identifiable, ongoing stressors, while in anxiety, context may be more nebulous, tied to anticipated future threats. "Perceived control" refers to an individual's belief in their capacity to manage these stressors or anxious feelings. With chronic stress, one might feel overwhelmed by unmanageable stress. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2023 at 7:52

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