Are You Stressed or Depressed? Mental Health Experts Help Explain the Difference

Know the signs so you can get the help you need.

Mental health struggles can arise in response to a single event like losing a loved one or a job, but they can also be the result of a more chronic, cumulative situation, like ongoing work or relationship challenges that snowball over time. In this instance, instead of eventually subsiding and returning to equilibrium, your natural stress and survival response remains in overdrive 24/7, and the negative effects not only stick around, but can get worse over time.

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According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in five adults experiences a mental illness every year, with one in 20 adults experiencing a serious mental illness every year in the U.S. As disheartening as these statistics are to learn, they’re also a good reminder that no one is alone in struggling. Another good reminder: There are ways to regain your quality of life again.

The first step is to figure out what exactly you’re feeling and experiencing. Is it normal stress from life’s challenges—or is it something more distressing, like depression, that will either continue or get worse without being addressed?

Stress and Depression Similarities

“Stress and depression share many symptoms and etiologies (causes), along with anxiety,” says Cynthia Ackrill, MD, fellow of the American Institute of Stress and editor of AIS’s Contentment Magazine. “When stress becomes chronic it can result in a wide variety of symptoms that overlap with anxiety and depression, from sleep and appetite disturbances to triggering or exacerbating high blood pressure, pain, or autoimmune disorders.”

While the signs can feel similar and sometimes overlap, there are specific differences between being stressed and being depressed.

The Signs of Stress

Stress typically starts as feeling overwhelmed or worried, triggered by a specific trigger (or stressor), whether it’s a real, immediate threat or a perceived threat. 

“Stress is a psychophysiological state generated by the perception of demands (deadlines, bills, training load) being greater than the resources available (mental energy, bank account balance, fitness level, etc.) to accomplish a given task,” explains Stacy Gnacinski, PhD, CMPC, assistant professor of health sciences at Drake University. “Stress manifests differently for everyone. Sometimes it's more physical (e.g., elevated heart rate, muscle tension) and sometimes it's more cognitive (e.g., racing thoughts, difficulty seeing the big picture).” 

In November of 2020, the American Institute of Stress found that 77 percent of people experiencing stress feel its physical health effects as well as psychological effects, so a combination of symptoms is common. Physical signs of stress can come in many forms, including migraines, stomach aches, appetite changes, digestive issues, sleep disturbances, high blood pressure, or stress-induced hair loss.

Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress

Gnacinski explains that acute stress is a stress response to a single event like loss of a job or a time-based or temporary situation like needing to find a new apartment to rent or working on a challenging project with a deadline. With acute stress, the stress response eventually subsides and your body can return to a state of equilibrium (giving body and mind a much needed break). Stress like this is a normal part of life and an evolutionary survival mechanism—and, for the most part, it’s nothing to be too alarmed about.

Then there’s chronic stress, which lasts several weeks (or longer). While it’s similar to acute stress in that it involves the same physiological chain of events, chronic stress happens when your body remains in stress mode while the stressor itself has subsided. Chronic stress can often turn into more concerning mental health issues, increasing the risk of both depression and anxiety. And here’s where stress and depression can seem to collide, share similarities, and be difficult to differentiate.

Ways to Reduce Stress

If you’re asking yourself, am I stressed?, the answer is probably yes. It’s now time to put your energy into decompressing and reducing stress with a few healthy coping habits that can bring down the frenzy, both inside your body and outside in your life. 

“Exercise (the non-obsessive variety) is almost always a good start,” Dr. Ackrill says. “Make it triple potent by walking outside in nature with someone you can really talk to. You are wired to move, wired to socially connect, and wired to be in nature.”

“Nourish your cells, rest, water, nutrients, movement, connection, play, all help your brain and your resilience,” Dr. Ackrill sums up lifestyle priorities. 

In addition to walking (or being active in another way you enjoy), consider learning to meditate as a way to silence the noise in your mind, and in your day. Chloe Carmichael, PhD, clinical psychologist and best-selling author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety, recommends a regular practice of meditation to help tame stress. An easy and convenient gateway into the practice of meditation is to download an app (there are both free and paid options) to learn all the ins and outs of this productive habit.

The Signs of Depression

If you’re asking yourself, am I depressed? It's important to become familiar with the signs and symptoms. Some of the most common experiences of depression include feelings of hopelessness, persistent sadness, irritability, loss of motivation, joy, or interest in previously pleasurable activities (known as anhedonia), sleep troubles (either too much or too little), slowed thinking or speaking, trouble concentrating, or unexplained physical pains, according to the National Institutes of Health. The severity of these symptoms can range from mild to severe. 

There are two specific red flags to keep at the forefront of your mind when talking about depression. Firstly, Carmichael says if you’re feeling too down or helpless to get help to seek support, it’s critical to reach out to a trusted friend or family member to share what you’re feeling. Second, Gnacinski says that if you notice your daily function, like work, family, or social activities being disrupted, or if you have persistent symptoms lasting for a month or longer, she recommends seeking professional help. A disruption in your daily function could look like not keeping up with laundry; not tending to personal hygiene; isolating from social life and not responding to friends' messages; or not paying bills on time. The changes in your day-to-day function, energy, motivation, and productivity may be subtle at first, so reach out if you’re noticing an unhealthy pattern developing.

How to Manage Depression

While there are lifestyle action steps to help depression like those recommended to zap stress, getting professional help should also be a first step—and it’s best to take action as soon as possible. Some great resources to tap include: The Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (212-684-3264). Carmichael also recommends or to find a licensed therapist (you can also type "find a therapist" followed by your zip code into your internet browser). 

Most importantly, if you have any thoughts of suicide, please seek immediate help by calling Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, reached by dialing “988” on your phone.

Bottom Line

If you’re still unclear on what you’re feeling, Dr. Ackrill says the best thing you can do is reach out to a trusted person ASAP—there is no shame, and you are far from alone in your struggles.

“If you’re wondering if your stress has advanced to anxiety or depression, don’t hesitate to reach out for help,” Dr. Ackrill urges. “You are actually wired through your ‘social brain’ to survive in connection to others, even when you feel like withdrawing or feel shame from feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed.”

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