How do I know if it’s Stress or Depression?

Is it stress or depression?

Man, as a kid I never would have imagined needing a question like that, but, alas, that’s how it is. We live in an era of too much to do and not enough time, which means additional stress. Additional stress, though, can lead to a whole host of symptoms that ultimately lead to some pretty nasty symptoms, many of which are incredibly similar to depression. So how can we tell the difference? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

What do stress and depression look like, anyway?

puppy laying on groundTo get an answer, I went to our good friend, Google (seriously, there are a ton of resources and the lists are pretty much identical). Unsurprisingly, many of the symptoms are the same. With both stress and depression, you may experience feelings of worthlessness, loneliness, and overwhelm. You can become forgetful, or have trouble making decisions (whether by over-thinking or under-thinking or not being able to think at all). Both can leave you feeling exhausted, even, and make your body ache.

With so many similarities, it can actually be easy to mistake one for the other. The symptoms can be so alike, both physically and emotionally, it can make it seem impossible to escape. With both cases, you’re typically left miserable and unable to see any way out.

So, how can you tell if it’s stress or depression?

That might seem tricky, but if you know what to look for, it’s not so bad. Usually, the best way to find an answer is to look outside the situation. Ask yourself the following 3 questions:

How long have I been feeling like this?

– While stress can and does stick around for some, typically it has a shorter duration than depression.

Stressed womanHas this happened to me before?

– Again, while stress can and does come up again and again, typically the extreme stress that triggers these symptoms is a rare occurrence. It may happen more than once in a lifetime (I sure hope not!), but it is not as likely as major depression.

What else is happening in my life that could be triggering this response?

– Personally, I think this is the biggest question. Depression can be situationally triggered, but stress (stress, not anxiety) is pretty much always brought on by an outside event. So, ask yourself if something has happened to make you feel this way. In my case, it was overwork and feeling I couldn’t escape that pushed me over the edge, but it could be anything. Everyone’s limits are different.

If you’ve asked yourself the above questions and found yourself leaning on the side of depression, it may be time to get help. If you found yourself leaning toward stress, but you’re still nervous, go get help. Honestly, both stress and depression can benefit from professional assistance and techniques to relieve symptoms.

Until then, though, let’s look at some little things you can do to help yourself.

Action Steps

cover of happy hippo angry duck
Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton

Thankfully, both stress and depression symptoms can be eased using some of the same coping tools. Here’s a short list to get you going.

  1. Do the small things.  Just making the time to do small things (dare I say, easy things) can help your spirits lift. It can give you a sense of accomplishment, or at least keep you moving, a sure boost to fight off depression. Bonus points if your small something is related to whatever is stressing you out!
  2. Get rid of the stressors you can. Let’s be honest… A lot of the stuff we stress about lately isn’t necessarily worth getting worked up over (and I say this as someone who can break down into tears if she doesn’t get the right spoon at breakfast time!). Honestly, if you’re freaking out because you think you have to hand make valentines for your kid’s class, you might want to take a step back and decide if it’s worth it. I promise, store bought is just fine.
  3. Take time to rest. No brainer, here. You have to be living under a rock if you haven’t heard at least one person say “Make sure you get enough sleep!” But beyond just getting a full night’s rest, make sure you take breaks in the day, too! Rest isn’t just about sleep. It’s about giving your brain a break. Whether that’s about mindfulness or just changing gears to something different, relax that brain.
  4. Give yourself permission to feel not okay. Final point, but most important point… don’t beat yourself up because you feel like crap. I mean, sheesh…it’s just gonna make you feel worse, ya know? So, cut yourself some slack and be okay with not being okay. Depression or stress, it’s not permanent. Don’t believe me? Read Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton. Unless you’re a duck, you’re safe.



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