From Cambridge dictionary,

  • stress - great worry caused by a difficult situation.
  • distress - extreme worry, sadness, pain.

I'm not sure if the words 'distress' and 'stress' have the same meaning but I have seen people use them interchangeably in some situations. I have also looked into Oxford Thesaurus dictionary there appears to be no relation between them. So, I'm just confused if both mean the same thing and can be used in place of another word?


4 Answers 4


Stress is often used to describe a mental state caused by excessive pressure of work. Distress is found in contexts in which people have been subject to traumatic experiences.


Stress is a state of imbalanced physiological or psychological conditions caused by stressors (internal or external). To maintain the balance or to reduce such conditions, physiological changes occur, collectively called the stress response. With the stress response, people can change or adapt to a stressful condition. But when the stressful condition is not adapted for a long time or if the stress is intense, it may bring distress.

Distress can be said as the inability to cope with stressful conditions, or a condition that is painful physically or mentally, that is observable in behavior. An acute or chronic stress condition can also be regarded as distress, because it also brings pain and a sense of not being able to control the stressor.

  • 1
    This is a great answer - do you have any source links you could add?
    – Hannele
    Oct 21, 2013 at 17:29

They can't be interchanged. Apart from the other answers, I'll mention that psychologists describe healthy stress (challenges) and ways to manage stress, but a 'distress call' given by the captain of a vessel is made because of an extreme situation.


When talking about life and people, feeling stress is not necessarily a negative input. However, if a person feels distressed, the word connotes an accompaniment of pain, a much heavier burden.

Stress MAY be caused by a challenging or difficult situation. The impetus to act on feeling stressed out may yield a positive outcome because of the pressure. Distress, however, IS a state of extremes: worries, pain, sadness. There is no indication of a positive outcome forthcoming.

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