Understanding the difference between stress and depression allows people recognize whether they are simply experiencing some added life pressure or something more serious like an ongoing mental health issue.
To say that life is sometimes unforgiving and difficult is an understatement. Humans start experiencing stress very early on, whether at home, at school or in even more relaxed social settings like the playground.
In fact, a certain amount of stress is healthy. It can keep people alert to signs of danger, motivate a person to get prepared, and the added rush of adrenaline often helps complete a stressful task.
Too much stress, however, is unhealthy and because many of the symptoms overlap, it can be hard to know where stress ends and depression begins.
What is Stress?
There are two forms of stress – chronic and acute.
Acute stress often arises from life changes, such as the passing of a loved one, sudden unemployment, divorce, or what people may consider more mundane events like moving or changing schools.
Chronic stress is more sustained and comes with issues like serious illness, lingering physical pain from injury or disease, ongoing physical, and emotional or verbal abuse. The marker of chronic stress is that it occurs over an extended period of time.
In both cases of acute or chronic stress, the body goes into what’s called “fight or flight,” elevating hormone levels of cortisol and decreasing the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood, emotion and sleep regulation.
Once the stress has passed, the “fight or flight” response is diminished and the body’s hormone levels return to normal.
However, a sustained physical response to chronic stress, and even with acute stress for some people, can lead to full blown depression.
What is Depression?
Depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), is a mood disorder that affects the way we think, feel, handle day-to-day responsibilities and even the ability to sleep and eat.
Depression is one of the most common and prevalent mental disorders in the country, affecting an estimated 17 million adults.
One of the hallmarks of depression is that symptoms last for at least two weeks or longer, but because many of the symptoms can mirror or resemble the signs of stress, people might not think that they’re actually suffering from a depressive episode.
What are the Symptoms of Stress vs. Depression?
Though the differences between stress vs. depression can be hard to spot right away, there are some slight variances, particularly related to how long the symptoms continue to effect a person’s quality of life.
Stress Symptoms Usually Include:
- Feeling overwhelmed and a sense of dread that leads to worry, anxiety and nervousness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Problems with concentration and/or memory
- A change in eating habits, either eating more or having a decreased appetite
- Mood swings between frustration, anger, irritability or feeling overly emotional
- Tension headaches, jaw clenching or teeth grinding, tight neck and shoulder muscles
Depression Symptoms Often Include:
- Feeling exhausted physically
- Lacking motivation or enthusiasm, especially for friends, family or activities typically enjoyable
- Isolation and withdrawal from others
- Difficulty making decisions, concentrating
- Trouble remembering things
- Problems regulating mood, feeling irritable and restless
- Changes in sleeping patterns – either more or less than usual
- Big increase or decrease in appetite and eating
- Overwhelming feelings of sadness, and hopelessness that life will get any better
- Continued pattern of ruminating on negative beliefs and feelings, including suicidal thoughts or tendencies
How to Treat Stress and Depression
Anyone experiencing symptoms of depression that have lasted for two weeks or more should speak with their physician, as well as see a therapist.
Depression and stress are very treatable conditions that can both be addressed with medications and other therapeutic approaches. Xanax is sometimes used to treat anxiety caused by stress and Zoloft can be used for depression or anxiety and panic disorders.
There are also many lifestyle approaches to improving and managing the symptoms of depression and stress. Though they might seem simple, they can be extremely effective.
Ways to treat stress and depression include:
- Regular exercise for at least 30 minutes to an hour a day
- Avoid self-medicating symptoms with alcohol or drugs
- Maintain a healthy diet, rich in fiber and lean proteins
- Get plenty of sunshine if possible
- Learn to meditate, even if it’s only for five to ten minutes a day
- Avoid isolating from people and activities that are healthy and you enjoy
- Communicate with trusted friends or loved ones about what’s going on
- Allow yourself some grace and kindness in your thoughts
Learning about the difference between stress and depression can help people track their symptoms and be better prepared when they speak with a doctor.
For some people, there is a very thin line between the effects of stress and battling depression. If there’s any question at all, seek help.
Even if it’s not depression, counseling is an effective way to develop tools and resilience for dealing with life’s emotional twists and turns.