The distinction between depression and stress


You may know intuitively whether you’re depressed or stressed, but to those around us the two problems can look similar, so it’s worth taking a moment to explore the similarities and differences.

Both depression and stress make us feel as if we aren’t coping with life, and that feeling of not coping can manifest itself in particular ways that are common to both depression and stress. We can get irritable. We can get frustrated and angry with the people closest to us, often over trivial things. We can even get tearful.

However, what is going on in our heads is very different in the two situations. Depression is draining – every action feels like a huge effort, we have no motivation or enthusiasm for anything. We feel overwhelmed because we lack the energy and inner resources to cope with the normal demands of everyday life. In other words, the depression within us is stealing our energy so we don’t have enough left to cope with the demands of the outside world.

Stress, on the other hand, usually comes from outside. When a combination of factors come together to throw more at us than we can handle, we begin to feel the pressure. Like depression, stress is about not having enough energy to deal with the demands that are placed on us. But, whereas with depression it is our energy levels that are too low, when we are under stress, it is the demands that are too great. Our energy levels are fine, even elevated, but the demands on us are so great that we still don’t have enough energy to do everything we need to get done.

Stress can be energizing, at least in the short-term. When we have too much to do, often our first instinct is to rush around in a frenzy desperately trying to get everything done, or at least as much of it as we can. It’s even possible to feel happy and stressed – when we enjoy everything in our lives but there is just too much of it. Depression, on the other hand, is characterized by a lack of enjoyment. When we are under stress, we get angry or frustrated at the people or situations that are asking so much of us –anger and frustration are emotions that require energy. They aren’t the emotions of depression.

But when the stress lasts for a long time – when we spend weeks or months constantly feeling as though we can’t get everything done and we are falling behind, then the stress can tip over into something more draining. Eventually, we become so exhausted from trying too hard for too long, that we run out of energy. We become so dispirited from falling further and further behind, or constantly failing to live up to other people’s expectations of us, that we give up and lose our motivation. It’s at this point that there is a very real danger of our stress pushing us into depression. And once that’s happened, it’s going to be very difficult to climb back out. We will have even less energy to cope with the demands that are still too great.

So, although stress isn’t depression, and in it’s early stages it doesn’t even feel like depression, it can be a warning sign that things are not right in our lives. And, if we don’t heed that warning sign, eventually our minds will have to resort to something more drastic – depression – to get our attention.

If you are under more stress than you can handle, and if that feeling has persisted for more than a few days, you need to take action to redress the balance and safeguard your future mental health. Which of the following actions can you take?

  • Practice saying “no”. Don’t take on anything new. Your health comes first.
  • Eliminate existing commitments where possible. You might feel bad about letting people down now, but you’ll feel even worse about letting them down later. Be realistic – if you’re not going to be able to follow through, say so now.
  • Ask the people around you for help. If your friends and family could see how this stress is affecting you, don’t you think they would want to lighten the load so that you can feel happy again? You’ll be able to return the favour when you’re feeling better.
  • Take shortcuts. If it has to be done, can it be done faster/more efficiently? You might need to let your perfectionism go for this one, but perfectionism is a luxury your health can’t afford right now.
  • Prioritise the things you find most rewarding. If you can’t get everything done, you might as well get maximum benefit from what you can achieve.

Stress isn’t the same as depression, but both are unpleasant feelings that warn you that your life is out of balance. Take steps to regain that balance, and you’ll be well on the way to feeling calmer and happier again.


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