Stress, anxiety, fear, and anger, and adolescents.

By Marcia Banks

What is the difference between stress, anxiety, fear, and anger?
Why is it important for adolescents to be aware of these differences?

Condensed notes from a talk online with Abigail James, PhD., Gendered Education Consultant.

Adolescents today are facing a world which is full of “Sustained, High, Intensity, Trauma”. The challenges are many, and include climate change, widespread conflicts, and wars; the rights for women and those with gender concerns are being abridged. Add to this mix there continues to be social injustice and gun violence.

Adolescents are becoming aware of how they and their peers are affected by these real-world issues. In addition, they are concerned with “fitting in” as their bodies are changing. Adolescence is a time of emotional, physical and social change, which is happening at the same time as their teenage brains are changing. Along with the prevalence and the attraction of social media platforms, adolescents are exposed to issues that are evoking more anxiety disorders, fear, and anger than in previous generations.

To understand what we can do to help the adolescent, let’s first address the essential differences between stress, anxiety, fear, **and anger.

Stress and anxiety share many of the same emotional and physical symptoms – irritability, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, headaches, difficulty sleeping – but they have different origins. 

Stress is a very normal, and necessary, response that our bodies have to respond to our environment, to protect ourselves from harm. Stress hormones cause the heart to beat faster, resulting in more blood pumping to the organs and limbs. This response allows a person to be ready to either fight or to run away. The feeling of stress is usually caused by an external trigger.

There is a distinction between two different types of stress. There is _eu_stress, a good form of stress that motivates us, provides a rush of excitement, satisfaction, and confidence. We may feel stressed about an exam, but we know we have prepared for it and can do it. Then there is _Di_stress, which is an unpleasant emotion, feeling, or thought. This type of stress is caused by situations that feel overwhelming and can arise when we feel we do not have control over the things happening in our lives.

“At one end of the spectrum is distress, which involves negative feelings and is often a difficult experience. At the other end is eustress, which is challenging but rewarding.”*

Anxiety, on the other hand, can be an internally created fear that seems to take on a life of its own. Anxiety is the anticipation of stress to situations that are seen as threatening or stressful. It is characterized by excessive worry or apprehension, a feeling that something uncomfortable is going to happen. Unlike stress, anxiety persists even after a concern has passed. In more severe cases, anxiety can escalate into an anxiety disorder. Symptoms of anxiety vary widely, from withdrawal and avoidance to irritability and lashing out. Anxiety is often overlooked in adolescents because teenagers are good at hiding their thoughts and feelings.

While both stress and anxiety can trigger the “<strong>fight</strong> or <strong>flight</strong>” response, anxiety can also lead to the “<strong>tend</strong> and <strong>befriend</strong>” response. Recognizing the differences between these two emotional states, and the why behind them, is very helpful in helping understand why males and females often respond differently in managing their emotional responses.

Fear is the next step beyond anxiety. There is legitimate fear, a fear concerning physical safety. There is also another type of fear, which is the anticipation of an unpleasant situation to the point where the person will avoid doing something. Fear in the latter case is the emotional response to a real or a perceived threat whereas anxiety is the anticipation of a future threat. Fear is one of the things that is affecting many adolescents and fear makes one feel weak.

The last step in this progression is anger, which is fear turned outward. It stems from a sense of being threatened or harmed by an external source and can lead to avoidance or to confrontation. Anger results in moving toward the cause of the anger, making one feel strong and may be used to defend or protect the self from the threat.

Why are adolescents today so affected by stress, anxiety, fear, and anger?

There are two critical components of adolescent egocentrism that are familiar to us:

  • Adolescent <strong>Egocentrism</strong>, this is the belief that nobody has ever felt the way they feel. It is the, “Nobody’s ever had the horrible life that I have. Nobody understands what I have to endure with parents, friends, my life.” It is a belief that nobody understands the challenges they face; nobody’s having the stress that they have.

  • The second part is called the <strong>Personal</strong> <strong>Fable</strong>. In this scenario, adolescents feel that they are special and invulnerable, nothing wrong will happen to them. It is a belief that can lead to risk-taking behaviors.

There is a new piece of information that should be added to what we know of adolescent egocentrism: A need for social connection and emotional support compounded with heightened need for reward.

Adolescents have a tendency of being highly emotionally sensitive and overact. This is not new. In addition, the adolescent brain shows a strong need for social connection and emotional support,at this age. However, we now have a better understanding as to why.The adolescent brain undergoes dramatic changes as it matures and not all parts of it grow at the same rate. The brain’s reward center, the ventral striatum, for instance, grows faster than the prefrontal cortex. The brain’s reward center plays an important role in mood and addiction and relies heavily on the rise and fall of dopamine. The brain’s reward center creates a strong response to the _expectation_of rewards which can make adolescents susceptible to addictive behaviors. An addiction can easily include substance abuse. Using recreational drugs may be a way of coping with discomfort (i.e. stress, anxiety, fear) and gives them the reward their brain craves. It works in the short term, numbing anxiety and stress; however, it does not shut off the feeling of anxiety. To continue to feel the alleviation of stress, more recreational drugs are required, and the adolescent becomes dependent on the substance.

We now see more adolescents who desperately need the social connection, who are convinced nobody understands them, and who are becoming anxious and upset because they are constantly being fed information from others that says that their life should be terrible, or they should have an anxious life.

It is important that adolescents are aware of the differences between stress, anxiety, fear, and anger as they are listening and taking in information from adults around them. We can share with them the differences between these emotions. The physical symptoms may be similar but cognitively they are different. Adolescents can understand these differences. Adolescents need to know that what is stressful is personal, a subjective experience; what may seem stressful for one person is not for another. Adolescents also need to know that no substance, legal or illegal, can effectively address stress, anxiety, fear, or anger without continued use of the substance.

What can we do to help adolescents deal with their stress, anxiety, fear, and anger?

There are two effective coping strategies we can model for them:

The fluid movements of activities such as yoga and qi gong can also help people to feel calm.

New research indicates that we have more power over adolescents that was previously thought, especially in helping adolescents learn how to manage and control their emotions, primarily, because adolescents are watching us deal with it. We need to learn how to manage your own stress, anxiety, fear, and anger in a constructive manner, modeling effective coping strategies. Adolescents are watching us!

For the full 24 minutes with Dr. James on this subject, go to

Related articles that may be of interest:

Quote taken from:

  • Medical News article updated February 16, 2023

Notes from Abigail Norfleet James, PhD, presentation in New Zealand, July 2023, The World Is Falling Apart: School Based Relationships Help Boys Survive Stress