The Differences Between Stress, Distress, and Anxiety in Teens


Adolescence can be a stressful stage of life. We all experience and manage stress differently. However, for some teens, stress can turn into anxiety. And that anxiety can become so persistent that teens may need professional assistance in order to manage it. However, distress is something a bit different than both stress and anxiety. Typically, it is the result of one specific event and may contribute to a psychological illness, such as teen anxiety or teen post traumatic stress disorder. This article will take a look at the differences between all three.


First of all, stress can be described as the physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses to challenging events. Typically, stress is experienced in small compiling amounts as a result of the events and circumstances of our lives. Sadly, most people, including teens, feel stressed all the time. With work, school, family responsibilities, and other life tasks, teens can experience stress on a daily basis. Sometimes this amount of stress can undermine a teen’s emotional and psychological well being. Certainly, some stress can trigger or contribute to anxiety.


Distress, on the other hand, is the effect of an unpleasant and undesirable experience. Distress can be the result of events that are seen as threatening or particularly life-altering. For instance, events like divorcing parents or being in a car accident can lead to distress. It can cause emotional and psychological stress for a teen. This kind of stress could require the aid of a mental health professional, a friend you trust, or an uninvolved family member. The following lists explore in more depth the differences between stress, distress, and anxiety.



  • Develops as a result of daily life
  • Can be alleviated with relaxation techniques and change of a teen’s schedule
  • Commonly experienced and doesn’t usually come with a stigma
  • A teen may be more willing to say that  they are stressed versus anxious



  • Usually associated with an event or series of events
  • Functional impairment is usually mild
  • Will usually go away with change in environment or removal of stressor
  • Professional intervention not usually necessary
  • Can lead to a positive factor in life
  • Social supports such as usual friendship and  family networks help
  • Counseling and other psychological interventions can help
  • Medications should not usually be used


Teen Anxiety Disorder

  • May be associated with a precipitating event
  • Functional impairment may range from mild to severe
  • Professional intervention is usually necessary
  • May lead to  long term negative outcomes (social  isolation, low self esteem, lack of independence, depression, substance abuse, etc.)
  • Social supports and specific psychological interventions (counseling, psychotherapy) are often helpful
  • Medications may be needed but must be used properly


If your teen is struggling with persistent anxiety and if it is interfering with his or her life, it’s necessary to get the right mental health treatment. It’s important to not only address his or her symptoms but also explore the underlying causes of that anxiety for full recovery. However, if your teen is experiencing distress, having him or her go on medication and seek therapy may not be the best solution. Although these forms of treatment are essential for those with anxiety disorders, they also come with a stigma. Many teens don’t want to admit that there is “something wrong with them”, especially during a life stage in which peer acceptance is critical.


This article provides a beginning exploration for the differences between stress, distress, and anxiety. However, if you feel your teen is struggling with symptoms of stress, distress, or anxiety, be sure to contact a mental health provider today.