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Stressed, or depressed? We’ll show you how to tell the difference

Over the last couple of years, there’s been a movement to end the stigma surrounding mental health, including conditions like stress and depression.

At a time when more and more people are struggling with the emotional impact of an ongoing pandemic, this news is indeed good. According to the American Psychological Association, nearly 80 percent of adults said that the COVID-19 pandemic was a significant source of stress in 2020. As the pandemic continues, it’s not a stretch to think this stress will continue on top of the every day concerns like work or money issues.

Depression is also common, affecting more than 17 million U.S. adults per year, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Though many people experience stress or depression (or both), some key differences affect a diagnosis and treatment. Let’s discuss how you can distinguish between stress and depression.

a woman sitting on a pillow with her hands over her face
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What is stress?

Stress is a mental health concern, but it’s technically a physical response to an adverse situation. When you perceive something as a threat, the prefrontal cortex of your brain gets overwhelmed by chemicals. The prefrontal cortex of your brain affects executive functioning, like planning and decision-making. The amygdala, the part of your brain that controls the fear response, also goes on high alert.

In the meantime, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, potentially causing physical responses like sweating, shortness of breath, and increased heart rate.

Stress can be chronic, but it’s often fleeting. You may experience stress at work under a tight deadline. Once you’ve completed the project, you can go home, unwind, and feel better.

How is depression different from stress?

Everyone feels sad now and then, such as when grieving the loss of a loved one. Unlike sadness or stress, depression isn’t phasic. Instead, symptoms, such as a loss of interest in activities you used to love, persist for two or more weeks.

We don’t know the exact causes of depression, though researchers think the brain plays a role. Some say it may be a chemical imbalance of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. Others believe it may have to do with neuron connection. Either way, help is available.

a woman sitting at a restaurant and looking sad
Image used with permission by copyright holder

How are these conditions diagnosed?

If you think you are experiencing stress or depression, the best course would be to reach out to a mental health provider. The provider can ask you specific questions about your symptoms, when they started, and what triggers them. The practitioner can use this information to make a formal diagnosis.

Whether you are experiencing stress, depression, or something else, it’s important to remember that your diagnosis does not define you. Stress and depression are both common, and receiving a diagnosis is an essential step in managing symptoms so you can live a fulfilled life.

What treatments and remedies are available to me?

There are several ways you can manage stress and depression, including:

  • Speaking with a therapist. Therapists, such as those specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help you talk through your problems and develop coping mechanisms.
  • Exercise. Studies show exercise reduces stress and depression. Participating in physical activity, such as walking or cycling, can be soothing. One study suggests aiming to exercise at least two to three times per week.
  • Sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep can enhance your overall well-being, research shows. Aim to get seven or more hours per night in order to feel rested and refreshed.

People can also treat depression with medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). You’ll need a practitioner, typically a psychologist, to prescribe and manage the medication. It’s often good to take medications in conjunction with talk therapy so that you can discuss your feelings, improvements, and setbacks.

Depression and stress are two of the most reported mental health issues people experience. Over the last several years, people have become more open about their struggles, decreasing the stigma surrounding mental health. Awareness is a positive step, but it’s also essential for people to receive appropriate diagnoses to receive the best outcomes.

Stress is typically passing and situational, whereas depression symptoms last for two or more weeks. Someone can also experience depression and stress at the same time. A mental health professional can help you differentiate between the two and develop coping strategies. Outside of the therapy room, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep can boost your mood. You may also benefit from taking medication. Keep in mind that there is no shame in getting help and that a diagnosis is an opportunity for treatment that leads to feeling better.

BlissMark provides information regarding health, wellness, and beauty. The information within this article is not intended to be medical advice. Before starting any diet or exercise routine, consult your physician. If you don’t have a primary care physician, the United States Health & Human Services department has a free online tool that can help you locate a clinic in your area. We are not medical professionals, have not verified or vetted any programs, and in no way intend our content to be anything more than informative and inspiring.

BethAnn Mayer
Beth Ann's work has appeared on and In her spare time, you can find her running (either marathons…
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