How to Recognize the Difference Between Stress and Frustration

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
November 6, 2019

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

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Stress can be thought of as an incident or event that occurs, or something that is external to us.  Stress can be an important presentation at work, or a final exam at school.  It can be financial when you do not have the money to afford the things that you want.  It can be a fight with your significant other, a drifting in friendships, or a tantrum from your toddler.  Stress can be when your child has off from school and your babysitter cancels, or when it snows and you have a long commute.  Stress could also be related to the diagnosis of an illness or the breaking down of a family vehicle. 

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 thus the same.  Who wouldn’t find it stressful to pack up your entire house while dealing with appraisals, closings, and attorney review?  Or the stress that comes with preparing to welcome a new baby.  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-giving notice, packing up your office, saying goodbye to co-workers, and heading straight into the unknown. 

Frustration, on the other hand is something that you feel, or something that is internal.  Frustration is your response to stressful events.  When you have an important presentation at work and you can’t find the zip drive and your computer keeps freezing, 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 busy Walmart or Target and making a scene, you will feel frustrated (and probably a little angry!) 

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Simply put, frustration can result when things do not go our way or when events occur that we have no control over.  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. 

Whether something stressful occurs or whether you are feeling frustrated, it is important to cope with these types of events and powerful feelings in a healthy way.  Coping skills are what gets us through these types of situations in one piece.  Coping can be going for a run, writing in a journal, coloring in an adult coloring book, or going to a yoga class.  Coping can be walking away from a fight with your spouse or leaving the classroom to take a few deep breaths before returning.  Seeking professional help from a mental health professional or taking medication when recommended and prescribed can be another way to cope with life’s stressors and the feelings of frustration that can often result.    

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

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.