What is the Difference Between Stress and Distress

The main difference between stress and distress is that stress is a human response shown towards external or psychological stressors, while distress is the emotional state a person encounters when he fails to adapt himself to stressors.

If you face stress on a daily basis, your body and mind can gradually deteriorate, resulting in the degradation of well-being and mood. With time, you may get the feeling of being on edge all the time.  This is when stress turns into distress.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Stress  
     – Definition, Features
2. What is Distress
     – Definition, Features
2. Similarities Between Stress and Distress
     – Outline of Common Features
3. Difference Between Stress and Distress
     – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms

Distress, StressDifference Between Stress and Distress - Comparison Summary

What is Stress

According to physiology, stress is a stimulation of the nervous system. When the human mind detects some kind of threat or a challenge, it releases the stress hormones in the body: adrenaline and cortisol. Consequently, the nervous system kicks into action with a stress response. The stress responding nervous system prepares us to face challenges by positioning our senses and biological mechanisms on alert: for instance, our heartbeat rate, pulse rate and blood pressure rise up, and our muscles become tense.

Stress and Distress - What is the difference?

For our ancestors, stress was a survival mechanism, especially for hunters who faced daily threats with predatory animals in the environment. In the 21st century, most of us usually don’t come across life-threatening or life or death situations. However, our stress response is stimulated by different events such as public speaking or traffic jam.

What is Distress

Distress is an unpleasant feeling, emotion,  condition, or behaviour that occurs as a result of prolonged stress. However, distress is a severe condition as it affects not only the way you feel or think but also how you act.

Stress vs Distress

For example, imagine that you are a cancer patient; distress can make it hard for you to cope with your sickness, in addition to dealing with cancer symptoms, treatments, and its side effects. According to researchers, distress has the ability to affect your decision-making process and behaviour. Furthermore, people usually recognize distress as a feeling, just like other common feelings, including sadness, anger, happiness, fear, anxiety, and hopelessness.

Similarities Between Stress and Distress

  • Stress and distress are closely related concepts
  • Both stress and distress refer to two negative psychological conditions we face as a result of challenging situations.
  • Therapies and activities such as yoga, meditation, relaxation exercises, massage, and creative therapies like dancing, art, and music are helpful in easing some forms of stress and distress.

Difference Between Stress and Distress


Stress is a human response shown towards external or psychological stressors, while distress is the emotional state a person encounters when he fails to adapt himself to stressors.


Stress usually ends up with negative responses shown by a person. However, distress does not always end up with negative responses because some people take stress positively, adapt themselves and respond in positive and healthy ways.

Stress Management Therapies

The most effective stress management therapies include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Stress., Positive Psychology for Stress, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for Stress, Mindfulness – Art Therapy for Stress and Music Therapy for Stress. Moreover, the most effective psychological distress management therapies include HADS (Hospital anxiety and depression scale) and TES (Targeted Selection).


The main difference between stress and distress is that stress refers to our natural reactions to environmental or psychological challenges, while distress takes place as a result of severe stress that continues for a long period of time. However, stress and distress are psychological conditions, and different psychological treatments are implemented on patients for stress or distress management.


1. “Stress.” American Psychological Association.
2. Yeh, Mei-Ling, et al. “Quantifying Psychological Distress among Cancer Patients in Interventions and Scales: A Systematic Review.” Springer, Springer US, 6 Feb. 2014.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Stress(CC BY 2.0) PlusLexia.com.
2. “Stress-anxiety-depression-unhappy” (CC0) via Pixabay

About the Author: Anuradha

Anuradha has a BA degree in English, French, and Translation studies. She is currently reading for a Master's degree in Teaching English Literature in a Second Language Context. Her areas of interests include Arts and Literature, Language and Education, Nature and Animals, Cultures and Civilizations, Food, and Fashion.

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