Stressed or Depressed? Learn the Difference

Stress and depression are closely related, but there are important distinctions.

young woman with eyes closed in front of computer

Updated on March 1, 2024.

For most people, stress is a daily part of life. A little stress is usually manageable and may even be good for you. It can help motivate you to tackle challenges at home, work, or school. But a lot of stress over a long period of time can harm your physical and mental health and may even contribute to depression.

In fact, your chronic stress may be a sign of depression, according to Alice Domar, PhD, a senior staff psychologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a pioneer in mind/body health. Read on for insights on how to tell stress and depression apart—and when you should see a healthcare provider.

How are stress and depression related?

Domar: Stress can lead to depression, and depression can lead to stress. Early animal studies found that if you stress out an animal by shocking it, and there is no way for the animal to change its circumstances, it becomes depressed. Similarly, if you feel helpless to change your own stressful situation—such as financial issues or marital problems—you can develop depression.

How do I know if I’m depressed or just stressed?

Domar: With depression, it is common to feel hopeless about the future and to lose interest in things normally found to be pleasurable. Key physical symptoms tend to be either insomnia or sleeping too much, and having either no appetite or too much appetite.

Stress causes a lot of different symptoms, both psychological and behavioral, depending on the person. Some of the physical symptoms that may differ from depression include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and gastrointestinal problems. The gut is extremely sensitive to stress.

When should I see a healthcare provider about my mood?

Domar: If you have physical symptoms, see a physician to rule out an underlying physical (or organic) problem. Once an organic factor is ruled out, consider going to a mental health professional who does cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This method of therapy teaches you strategies to respond differently to stressful situations. It works fast and is normally covered by insurance. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may also be prescribed an antidepressant.

Exercise can help reduce stress and depression. Why don’t more people do it?

Domar: When you’re stressed, you’re revved up and feel like you have no time to exercise. When you’re depressed, you often don’t have the will to exercise. In both cases, it’s really hard to get yourself out the door. But even taking a short walk will make you feel better.

If we could get people to exercise, we would not see the prevalence of depression and anxiety that we do in this country. That being said, if you suspect you are depressed, especially if you have thoughts of harming yourself, it’s important to get evaluated by a mental health professional immediately.

Anyone considering suicide should call, text, or chat with the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or call 911 right away or go to the nearest emergency room.

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