The Difference Between Stress Versus Depression

Understanding the difference between stress and depression allows people to recognize whether they are merely experiencing some added life pressure or something more serious.

To say that life is sometimes unforgiving and challenging 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.

A certain amount of stress is considered 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 big task.

However, too much stress is unhealthy, and because many of the symptoms overlap, it can be hard to know where stress ends and depression begins.

Acute stress often arises from life changes, including:

  • Passing of a loved one
  • Sudden unemployment
  • Divorce
  • Moving
  • Changing schools

The marker of chronic stress is that it occurs over an extended period. Chronic stress is more sustained and comes with issues like:

  • serious illness
  • lingering physical pain from injury or disease
  • ongoing physical, emotional, or verbal abuse

In both cases of acute or chronic stress, the body goes into what’s called “fight or flight.” It elevates cortisol hormone levels and decreases serotonin production, a neurotransmitter associated with mood, emotion, and sleep regulation.

Related: What are 8 Foods That Boost Serotonin for Better Mental Health and Mood?

As the stress has passed, the “fight or flight” the body’s hormone levels return to normal.

However, sustained physical response to chronic stress and acute stress for some people can lead to full-blown 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. Still, because many of the symptoms can mirror or resemble the signs of stress, people might not think they’re suffering from a depressive episode.

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 affect a person’s quality of life.

Stress Symptoms

  • 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

  • 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
  • Significant increase or decrease in appetite and eating
  • Overwhelming feelings of sadness and hopelessness that life will get any better
  • A continued pattern of ruminating on negative beliefs and emotions, including suicidal thoughts or tendencies

Anyone experiencing symptoms of depression that have lasted for two weeks or more should speak with their physician and see a therapist.

Depression and stress are treatable conditions. Both respond to medications and other therapeutic approaches. 

There are also many lifestyle approaches to improving and managing the symptoms of depression and stress. Though they might seem simple, they can be highly 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 speaking with a doctor.

For some people, there is a thin line between the effects of stress and battling depression. If there’s any question at all, seek professional 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.

What’s the Difference Between Stress and Depression?