There’s so much overlap between the symptoms that it can be easy to confuse the difference between stress and depression.
Some people might think they’re stressed out when, in fact, they’re dealing with undiagnosed depression. Another person might believe they’re depressed when in actuality a small behavioral change might alleviate their problem.
This is why understanding the difference between stress vs depression can help people make the right treatment approaches.
It’s important to acknowledge that avoiding stress is nearly impossible. Life has a way of continually exercising its own will, often in direct conflict with the way we’d hoped or believed things were going to go.
Even worse, society often glamorizes stress, making it seem that if people are stressed out they must be very successful and important. Obviously, the truth is far less glamorous and sometimes low-stress jobs can be healthier for certain types of people.
How to Identify the Difference Between Stress and Depression
The short answer is that generally stress is a temporary issue caused by external circumstances or situations.
On the other hand, depression can be brought on by a number of different factors and is a mental health condition that can last months or even years.
As unpleasant as stress can feel, it’s not always necessarily harmful. Stress can motivate us to study harder for an exam, to practice for an important work presentation, or even take more of an active role in our own health and wellbeing.
Severe, chronic stress, though, will definitely take a physical and mental toll if left unaddressed. In response to stress, the body releases cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone.”
High levels of cortisol have been linked to heart disease, digestive problems, headaches, and cognitive impairment, as well as developing problems with anxiety and depression, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Other Symptoms of Stress Can Include:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Trouble sleeping or focusing
- Weight gain or loss
- Tension in the jaw and neck from clenching the teeth
- Feeling agitated
- Constant worry
- Being burned out from work or other life stressors
What are the Symptoms of Depression?
Like stress, depression is incredibly common. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that just over 16 million adults are affected by depression in a given year.
Besides being quite common for all age groups, depression is the leading cause of disability for people between the ages of 15 to 44 in the United States.
Whether it’s the result of untreated childhood trauma, unresolved self-esteem issues, genetics, a chemical imbalance in the brain, or chronic stress, depression can be seriously debilitating.
Unlike stress, which is generally accumulated, depression can strike when everything is seemingly going great.
Some of the More Common Symptoms of Depression Include:
- Overwhelming feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Sustained and extreme sadness
- Cycles of feeling intense shame and guilt
- Body aches and pains
- Mood swings from irritability to rage
- Changes in sleep patterns leading to oversleeping or insomnia
- Unhealthy eating habits that contribute to weight loss or weight gain
- Avoiding friends, family or colleagues
- A loss of interest in activities once enjoyed or cherished
- Suicidal thoughts or ideations
Treatment for Stress vs Depression
Because there is so much crossover between the symptoms of the two, some of the same treatment approaches for treating stress are effective in easing the symptoms of depression.
In both cases, avoiding alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism is particularly important, and neither one should be used as a way to circumvent or avoid traditional treatment therapy approaches.
Many substances like alcohol are depressants and will only worsen the symptoms of stress or depression.
Another way to look at it is what goes up, must come down. Even though alcohol and drugs may feel good in the short-term, the high is always followed by a crash because when substances leave the body they can disrupt the normal neurochemical functioning of the brain.
It’s unfortunate that so many people may find temporary comfort from using drugs or alcohol to dampen the painful side effects of stress or depression. Over time, this strategy will stop working, possibly leaving them struggling with addiction as well.
Healthy Ways to Manage Stress
Every person has his or her own ways of dealing with stress, and some are more effective than others.
Here are Some Healthy Ways to Deal With Stress:
- Create a habit of exercising either moderately 7 days a week, or if more intense, 3 to 5 days a week
- Maintain a nutritious diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables and lean proteins
- Develop sleep habits that ensure 7 to 9 hours of restful slumber
- Make a point of doing things you enjoy, such as going to the movies, visiting friends, or whatever else eases the feelings brought on by stress
- Take a hot bath or warm shower before bed
- Talk to someone, a counselor or a friend, who is willing to listen to your stress-related problems
Treatment Approaches for Depression
Like stress, each person will find which techniques work better than others for their individual situation when dealing with depression.
But unlike stress, depression is a clinical mental health condition that can cause problems with daily life and may have lasting implications that require professional help or formalized treatment.
Here are Effective Treatment Approaches for Depression:
- See a physician, licensed counselor or therapist
- If suggested, antidepressant medications can be incredibly effective
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle by exercising, eating healthy, and avoiding alcohol or drug use
- Use mindfulness and meditation techniques for at least a few minutes each day to ease the anxiety that often accompanies depression
- Avoid the urge to isolate yourself by staying in contact with friends and family
Other useful treatment methods for depression can include evidence-based therapies such as:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
- Brainspotting Therapy for Depression Caused by Trauma
- Neurofeedback Therapy
- TMS Therapy for Treatment-Resistant Depression
CBT and DBT are therapy tools that teach people how to manage the relationship between their thoughts, feelings and behavior choices. These are core cognitive therapies for depression and many other mental health illnesses or even addiction.
EMDR, Brainspotting, Neurofeedback, and TMS are unique in that they don’t use medication or traditional talk therapy approaches and often utilize technology or other means as treatment remedies.
Whether it’s stress or depression, taking the appropriate steps to alleviate the symptoms will feel empowering for the individual.
While these issues may be unavoidable sometimes, there is no need to let them cripple our day-to-day lives and put unnecessary strain on our relationships.
Understanding the difference between stress and depression is the first step to treating each condition and determining a proper diagnosis. Only then can the correct treatment therapy be applied to overcome the symptoms and begin traveling the road to a successful recovery.
Dr. Elena Kapustina found her true calling and completed her PsyD in Clinical Psychology after earning her MBA and spending years working as the CFO for major corporations. She founded Iris Healing to holistically work with dual diagnosis patients in order to create a more sustainable recovery. From managing 1,000 employees to creating a top of the line treatment center, Dr. Kapustina harnesses her passion to create positive experiences for others.