Stress, Depression, or Anxiety?
Understanding the differences

Many people interchange the words stress, anxiety, and depression as if they are describing the same things. These are three common mental issues that can have a significant impact on one’s physical and emotional well-being. While they are all related, stress, anxiety, and depression have fine lines that distinguish them from one another. 

What is stress?

Sophia didn’t hear her alarm go off and she’s running late for an important meeting. With the clock ticking, she skips breakfast and gets ready in a rush. Hungry, hair dripping, and breathless, Sophia scrambles for her car keys and heads out. But, alas, luck doesn’t seem to be on her side when a jeep breaks down in the middle of the road causing traffic jam.

Sophia’s heart begins racing knowing that she will not make it in time for the meeting. She’s all stressed out.

Stress is defined by the National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) as “similar to tension… the kind a person feels when faced with a new, unpleasant or threatening situation. It is an individual’s internal reaction to pressure or demand. It can be a threat, a challenge, or any kind of change which requires the body to adjust and immediately act” (GovPH, 2013).

Stress is a normal reaction to a demanding or challenging situation. It can be triggered by different factors such as school, work, relationships, finances, health, or life events. According to an online poll conducted by CNN Philippines, Filipinos cited jobs or studies as the leading cause of stress. 

Based on WebMD, stress levels may vary, depending on a person’s personality and how the individual responds to challenges.  Some people can treat stressful situations as minor obstacles while others make themselves sick by worrying too much. 

When you’re dealing with a stressful situation, your body reacts by releasing hormones so you can either face the issue head-on or avoid it. WebMD refers to this as a “fight or flight” response. If you’re experiencing short-term stress, your heartbeat might race, your muscles may become tense, your breathing can get faster, and you may start sweating. These signs are common when facing short-term stress which may last for several minutes or hours. Your body generally recovers quickly from short-term stress when effectively managed. 

Stress over a short period may exhibit the following signs:


Upset stomach

Difficulty sleeping

Trouble focusing

Sluggish/ feeling tired


If your stress persists over a longer period and you don’t deal with it, then it becomes chronic stress. This can disrupt your work, relationships, and health. Long-term stress can also lead to depression.

What is depression?

Dino was diagnosed with depression two years ago. His wife describes him as an outgoing guy but when depression hits, he withdraws from his family and friends. He would isolate himself in the bedroom, refuse to eat, and miss several days of work. He would also be irritable and uncommunicative.

Depression, a common mental disorder, is defined by Mayo Clinic as a mood disorder associated with relentless feelings of loneliness and loss of interest. The feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of a person suffering from depression are negatively affected which may result in a variety of emotional and physical issues.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that depression affects 154 million people (National Library of Medicine, 2018).

According to WHO, a person experiencing a depressive episode may exhibit any or a combination of the following:

Feelings of loneliness, emptiness, irritability

Loss of interest or pleasure in activities

Lack of focus / concentration

Feelings of hopelessness

Fatigue, lack of energy

Trouble sleeping

Changes in eating habits and weight

Feelings of guilt

Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

What is anxiety?

Anxiety exhibits nearly the same set of symptoms as stress but they are not the same. Mental First Health Aid explains that stress is a person’s response to an external cause. Whereas, anxiety is an individual’s specific reaction to stress; it’s internal. People suffering from anxiety may have difficulty controlling their thoughts and feelings, and they may experience physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea. 

A typical form of anxiety that people experience is situational anxiety. It usually occurs when a person goes outside of his “comfort zone.” Below is an example of situational anxiety.

Dante has a fear of public speaking and he was tasked to present their team’s marketing plan. As the days came closer, Dante had trouble sleeping and felt a sense of dread and panic. The feelings intensified on the actual day of the presentation. He was restless and tense, and his heart was racing. When it was over, Dante felt an incredible sense of relief and the overwhelming feelings disappeared. 

Anxiety disorders refer to anxiety that does not go away and worsens over time. It is often characterized by excessive worry and fear. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating, and can interfere with a person’s job performance, studies, schoolwork, and relationships.

In a Nutshell

Stress and anxiety are normal parts of life. Medicare Plus, Inc. shares 6 ways to care for your mental health. If self-care strategies are not cutting it and either stress or anxiety are disrupting your well-being and day-to-day life, consider seeking the advice of a mental health professional. An expert can help you understand what you are going through and recommend more coping tools. Depression, on the other hand, is not simply feeling blue and it can only be diagnosed by a qualified expert. If you think that you or someone you know may be struggling with depression, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

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