Stress or depression?

by Andrea Blundell
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Convinced you are just stressed, but your partner or friends keep asking if you are depressed?

How do you know if it's stress or depression?


Stress happens when life feels too much to manage. A current situation, or a series of situations happening together, overwhelms us.

We know what it is that is stressing us, it’s just that we can’t seem to get on top of things no matter how hard we try.

Our mind starts to work in worried spirals, as we try to figure out how we can manage all we have on our plate.

There can be physical side effects to stress. Our self-care suffers. We might start eating badly, not exercising, and drinking more alcohol or indulging in other bad habits. We can also struggle to sleep well. Tension through the body can mean muscle pain, upset stomach, and headaches.


Depression usually comes from things that we don’t feel good about that have already happened. It can be triggered by a recent event, like a breakup or a bankruptcy. And then we can start to think about all sorts of related past events -- other breakups, other times we’ve felt like a failure.

Or depression can seem to happen out of the blue, with the trigger so small or unconscious we can't put a finger on it.

Regardless, off our mind goes on increasingly negative spirals. It’s a constant voice set to doom and gloom and hopelessness. We direct this towards ourselves, convinced we are useless and no good.

There are physical side effects to depression, too. Exhaustion is a big one, even if you do manage to sleep (depression often comes hand-in-hand with sleep problems). Your body feels made of sand and your brain feels deadened, as if you are looking through a thick fog. Eating habits can change, meaning you over or undereat. You might have constant colds and flus.

What do stress and depression have in common?

Both stress and depression can cause:

  • exhaustion and overwhelm
  • difficulties concentrating
  • poor self care
  • changes to eating and sleeping patterns
  • social withdrawal
  • low self-esteem
  • shame
  • a compromised immune system.

Both, left untreated and taken to extremes, can lead to suicidal thinking. Therapy, however, can help treat either condition.

How are stress and depression different?

Stress has an evident trigger vs. depression can seem out of nowhere.

Stress is based on current circumstance vs. depression is about the past, even if it’s a recent past.

Stress is about feeling overwhelmed vs. depression is about feeling hopeless.

With stress your thoughts are frantic vs. with depression your throughts are negative, gloomy, and destructive.

Stress leads to feeling tense, buzzy or on a rollercoaster of highs and lows vs. depression leaves you feeling shattered.

Help dealing with things eases stress vs. depression can be unresponsive and end on its own timing.

Can stress lead to depression?

Yes. The two can definitely be connected. If stress gets too much, and you start to have very negative thinking, or it triggers ruminating over other times in life when you were stressed and things went badly? Your self-esteem can drop and you can find yourself suddenly depressed.

This is why it is important to take stress seriously. If it is workplace stress, talk to your manager or human resources. If it’s school stress, most schools have a counsellor who is there to help. If you don't have someone to talk to, stress responds very well to counselling.

As for depression, if it’s been going on for six weeks or more it’s a very good idea to seek support. Talk to your GP. Or consider hiring a talk therapist who not only won’t judge you, they will completely understand and teach you tools to navigate your way forward.

Time to get the help you need with your stress or depression? Find a therapist you like now and learn coping tools that will serve you for life.

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