Stress vs. Frustration: What’s the Difference?

Author Tracy Smith
Updated on July 5, 2021

It can be easy to confuse the concepts of stress and frustration. After all, at first glance, these words appear to refer similar emotions. People utter phrases all of the time, “I’m so stressed” or “I’m so frustrated,” but what exactly do they mean? Although somewhat alike, stress and frustration are terms that actually refer to two completely separate types of experiences.

frustrated man working on a laptop

Understanding Stress

Stress can be thought of as a feeling of emotional or physical tension that is brought on by an event or thought.[1] Stress can be a response to situations such an important presentation at work or a final exam at school. It can come on when you do not have the money to afford the things that you want. It can result from a fight with your significant other or a tantrum from your toddler. Stress could also be related to the diagnosis of an illness or the breaking down of your car by the side of the highway.

Although stress has a negative connotation, it can actually arise from happy events as well, such as the birth of a new baby, a change in jobs, or moving to a new location. These events are all associated with positive and joyful occurrences, but are stressful at the same. Who wouldn’t find it stressful to pack up your entire house while dealing with appraisals, closings, and attorney review? Have you ever seen frantic young couples attempt to purchase anything and everything that a new infant might need? Or, how about the stress that comes from changing jobs, such as giving notice, packing up your office, saying goodbye to co-workers, and heading straight into the unknown?

Regardless of what causes it, stress is a normal reaction by the body. It’s accompanied by a release of hormones that help you stay alert and deal with the situation. Unfortunately, when people experience chronic stress due to unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors, it can result in serious health problems.[2][3]

Understanding Frustration

Frustration is negative emotion resulting from disappointment in not achieving a desired outcome.[4] It is rooted in an internal expectation of the personal experiencing it. Frustration can be very stressful.

When you have an important presentation at work and you can’t find the zip drive, you are likely to feel frustrated. When you see a piece of clothing or a new electronic device that you cannot afford, you will feel frustration. When your toddler is flinging themselves on the floor of a supermarket and making a scene that makes impossible for you to get your shopping done, you will feel frustrated.

Simply put, frustration can result when things do not go our way or when events occur that we have no control over, but expect to. We feel frustrated when life deviates from what we plan or expect. Frustration can be in response to large or small stressors. Who hasn’t felt frustrated when looking for your glasses or accidentally stubbing your toe? Who wouldn’t feel frustration when continually explaining to your teenager why they cannot borrow the family car?

How They Differ

The main distinction between stress and frustration is that stress is brought on by something that our brain processes as potentially harmful or requiring immediate action. Frustration, on the other hand, is a feeling we get once something has already happened (or not happened) in a way that’s inconsistent with our expectations. Therefore, whereas stress causes our bodies to prepare for springing into action, frustration does not. It’s usually accompanied by feelings of sadness and anger, although it may result in stress as well.

Whether you feel stressed or frustrated, it is important to cope in a healthy way. Coping skills are what gets us through these types of situations in one piece. This can include going for a run, writing in a journal, coloring in an adult coloring book, or going to a yoga class; basically anything that helps us relax. Seeking help from a mental health professional can be another way to cope with life’s stressors and the feelings of frustration that can often result. The important this is not to let negative feelings linger for months on end.


References

  1. National Library of Medicine. (2021). Stress and your health. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003211.htm
  2. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2021, February 26). Stress management. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/basics/stress-basics/hlv-20049495
  3. Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A reviewEXCLI journal16, 1057–1072. https://doi.org/10.17179/excli2017-480
  4. Jeronimus, B. F., & Laceulle, O. M. (2017). Frustration. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_815-1
Author Tracy Smith

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for a Community YMCA. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents.