When Is It Just Stress?

How can we tell the difference between stress and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression?

We’ve all experienced stress, to varying degrees, at some point in our lives. Whether it was cramming for an important test, preparing for a big job interview, or as something as small as looking for our lost keys. Stress is a normal response to everyday life. In fact, biology tells us that stress exists to save our lives. However, if left unchecked, extreme and/or prolonged stress can lead to a slew of health problems like anxiety and depression. However, it is important to know the difference between everyday stress and a diagnosed mental health condition. 

How do I know I’m stressed? 

Stress is a response to an external stimuli and can be classified into two groups: chronic (long-term) and acute (short-term). Symptoms include: memory problems, irritability, fatigue, muscle pain, body rashes, digestive issues, difficulty sleeping, weight gain, and even heart disease. 

Unlike anxiety and depression, stress resolves itself as life changes.

Am I stressed or anxious?

While anxiety and stress share many of the same symptoms, there are key differences. As I mentioned, stress is usually triggered by an external source and resolves itself as that source is eliminated. Anxiety, an overwhelming sense of fear and nervousness, persists even after the stressor is eliminated. This fear and nervousness can persist for months, which negatively impacts day-to-day moods and functions.  

Though not a symptom of stress, anxiety is a response to stress. Individuals experiencing chronic stress are at a particularly high risk of developing anxiety. If left untreated, this anxiety can grow into a disorder such as: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. 

Am I stressed or depressed?

Much like anxiety, depression does share symptoms with stress. Just like with stress, individuals experiencing depression can feel irritable or angry, fatigued, have difficulty sleeping, experience memory problems, and see a change in eating habits. However, symptoms of depression also include lack of motivation, withdrawing from other people, loss of sex drive, persistently feeling bad about oneself, guilt, or worthless and suicidal thoughts. Unlike stress, and much like anxiety, depression can happen even when life seems fine. It can be extremely intense and last for years. 

How do we manage stress?

The most important thing we can do when we start to feel stressed out by life is to take care of our bodies both physically and mentally. Here are some things that we can do to help combat the symptoms of stress:

  • Get enough sleep – A consistent and thorough sleep schedule will leave us feeling well rested and ready for our day.
  • Eat well balanced meals – Food is fuel. So, prioritizing our nutrition will do wonders for both our physical and mental endurance throughout the day. 
  • Indulge in a hobby – Whether it’s listening to music, playing a sport, or arts and crafts, giving ourselves time to decompress with something that’s enjoyable will provide a buffer between the stressful tasks we still have to complete. 
  • Journaling – Journaling our emotions will help us to pinpoint exactly what is making us stressed. This not only helps us reach the root cause of our stress, but it also eliminates excess anxiety over the uncertainty of heightened emotions.
  • Meditating – Meditation will help us feel grounded and calm during a time when it’s particularly important to focus on the calming aspects of life. 
  • Phone a friend – Reaching out to friends is always a great option. Sometimes the perfect remedy to too much stress is a much needed vent to a close confidant. 
  • Eliminate stressors – If we can, we should try to eliminate stressors in our lives. Whether it means stepping back from a project or asking for help from someone else, it’s important to remember that too much stress is never good for productivity. 
  • Ask for professional help – If stress becomes so severe that affects how we function day-to-day than seeking the help of a mental health professional is well advised. 

Bottling up our stress and ignoring it will only do more harm than good. Stress can be overwhelming at times and it’s okay to admit that it can be too much to handle on our own. Stress is a common response for everyone, so there’s always someone to talk to that will understand just how we all feel. Asking for help is healthy. 

Written By Katy Egan

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