November 06, 2023
Stress, anxiety, and depression are often used interchangeably in conversation, but these terms each represent very different experiences. Understanding their differences is key to raising public awareness about mental health, as well as making sure people have access to help when they need it.
Here’s a quick explainer on each of these common mental health terms, along with ways to manage these conditions.
Stress is the result of your “flight-or-fight” reflex. When you face something that your brain perceives to be a threat, your body releases hormones that cause you to become alert and ready to act under pressure. This natural response often causes physical symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, flushed skin, and tense muscles. Your “fight-or-flight” reflex can be helpful in certain situations when you’re under pressure to perform well, such as having to give a big presentation at work. In these types of situations, the stress usually goes away once the perceived threat is no longer there.
But sometimes, a perceived threat can linger for an extended period of time, causing the stress to become chronic. Examples of chronic stress include:
• Everyday pressures such as work, school, family needs, and financial issues
• Consequential events such as a divorce, an illness, or losing your job
• Experiencing or witnessing serious harm or death from something like a car accident, a natural disaster, or a war — this can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Chronic stress can lead to numerous physical and mental health problems, including:
• Lowered resistance to illness
• Digestive system problems
• Feeling sad or angry
• Developing a bad temper
Ways to combat stress yourself include eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising, practicing deep breathing, stretching, meditating, and not smoking or drinking. You also should:
• Try to solve the problems you can and not worry about ones you can’t
• Do your best to avoid criticizing yourself for not being perfect
• Talk about your problems to people who care about you
• Do some things you enjoy
Many anxiety symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat, tense muscles, and shortness of breath, are also symptoms of stress. Temporary feelings of anxiousness are normal when you’re dealing with a stressful situation. However, if you experience persistent feelings of worry, fear, or dread that interfere with your daily life, you may have an anxiety disorder such as:
• Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which causes you to worry excessively about ordinary issues
• Panic Disorder, in which you get panic attacks
• Social Anxiety Disorder, which is a fear of others watching and judging you
• Phobia-related disorders, which cause you to be intensely and irrationally afraid of specific situations or objects such as flying, heights, snakes, spiders, blood, or getting injections
If you’re experiencing general anxiety, you can try to manage it yourself using the same strategies recommended for managing stress.
If you feel overwhelmed by anxiety, or if you’re experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder, you should contact a mental health professional to formulate a diagnosis and provide treatment. Your treatment plan, which may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both, will be dependent on the type of mental health provider you choose. For instance, only a psychiatrist or other MD/DO can prescribe medication.
Feelings of sadness are normal when you experience difficult times, such as losing a loved one, getting let go at work, or breaking up with a significant other. While the sadness may be intense, the feelings typically go away with time for most people. Depression, on the other hand, is a common and serious mental health condition that causes severe symptoms which can impact the way you feel and think on a daily basis.
Several factors may trigger depression or increase someone’s risk of developing the condition, including:
• Low self-esteem, being overly dependent, or having a pessimistic outlook on life
• Experiencing distressing life events such as physical or sexual abuse, losing a loved one, a challenging breakup, or financial issues
• Having a family history of mental health disorders
• Being part of a marginalized population such as the LBTQIA+ community
• Abusing alcohol or drugs
• Having a serious chronic illness such as cancer or heart disease
• Taking certain medications
Symptoms of depression include:
• Lack of emotion
• Feeling sad or empty
• A loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
• Feelings of hopelessness
• Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
• Overeating or having no appetite
• Not being able to sleep or sleeping too much
• Feeling exhausted
• Aches, pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems
• Thoughts of death or suicide
To be diagnosed with major depression, a person needs to experience at least five of these symptoms every day for a minimum of two weeks.
If you experience less severe symptoms of depression lasting much longer, typically for at least 2 years, you may have persistent depressive disorder.
Other types of depression include:
• Perinatal depression, which is experienced during and after pregnancy.
• Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is experienced during the months with the least daylight.
• Depression with symptoms of psychosis, which can cause delusions or hallucinations.
If you believe you are experiencing depression, you should seek the help of a mental health professional. Either through talk therapy, medication, or a combination of both, you’ll be provided with resources to treat your depression.
And if your mental state ever reaches the point that you’re thinking of harming yourself, get help immediately. You can call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Hotline 24/7 for free, confidential support.