Anxiety, Stress, and Depression: What's the Difference?

Every year, in the United States, roughly 18 percent of adults aged 18 to 54 find themselves diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Reportedly, 4.7 percent of US adults regularly feel depressed. Indeed, over a lifetime, it's estimated that 15% of adults will experience depression of one kind or another.

As for stress, the panic-inducing emotion is so ubiquitous that it’s fast becoming unnoticeable. After political crises followed by the juggernaut of COVID-19, stress levels are reaching a fever pitch. Around 30 percent of US adults reported stress, anxiety, or great sadness since the start of 2020 – greater than any other nation measured.

Amidst this flurry of statistics, it's clear there are major eruptions of distress and mental health occurring. But for most people, mental health awareness is a struggle. Knowing the difference between anxiety, stress, and depression is less than clear. 

So, what's the difference?


How to spot a mental illness

Unlike physical conditions like the common cold or a heart attack, there are no empirical tests for mental illness. There are no tell-tale molecules in your blood that tell a doctor whether it's bipolar disorder or depression, generalized anxiety disorder or agoraphobia.

How, then, do doctors go about diagnosing patients?

Instead of relying on physical markers, doctors rely exclusively on symptoms. These symptoms are then fed through the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-5 to see if you have a mental illness. The DSM-5 or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V is produced by hundreds of experts to categorize mental illnesses and list their symptoms.

But while the manual is designed primarily for psychiatrists, knowing a few key symptoms can help us identify mental illness in ourselves.

Let’s boost our mental health awareness!


Analyzing anxiety

Anxiety itself isn't a mental illness; rather, it is a collection of anxiety disorders. These are broadly categorized by situations or events that elicit feelings of anxiety within a patient. For instance, if you fear leaving home or being alone in a social situation, you may have agoraphobia. Meanwhile, anxiety brought on by a traumatic experience like war or assault is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Or, if your anxiety occurs randomly, you may have a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – what most people think of as anxiety.

But what are the symptoms of anxiety?

Unlike many other mental illnesses, the symptoms of anxiety are distinctly physical. They're our natural fear-response in overdrive. Expect to feel:

  • Nervous or restless
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Intense sweating
  • Unable to focus thoughts
  • Weak or lethargic
  • A sense of panic or dread
  • Unable to sleep
  • Stomach problems
  • Trembling or muscle twitching

If you identify any of these features, it's critical to seek help. The symptoms can manifest more severely, however. Panic attacks describe an intense and debilitating sudden onset of anxiety. The symptoms typically peak in minutes, though the aftershock can last for hours or even days.

What you'll notice:

  • Palpitations
  • Shaking
  • Chest pain
  • Fear of dying
  • Nausea
  • Sense of choking
  • Depersonalization – a detachment from oneself or reality
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Numbness or tingling

Panic attacks present similarly to heart disease, thyroid problems, and many other disorders. Therefore, seek medical help immediately. Not all anxiety is as severe as a panic attack, however. Indeed, relatively simple solutions can provide immense benefits.

Take time to unwind with an essential oil roller and organic California white sage smudge wand. It's the ultimate self-care solution. Aromatherapy is well-known for its anxiety-busting results. So, when you're feeling hot under the collar or stressed at work, try this relaxing solution.

That brings us to stress.


Spotting stress

Stress and anxiety often go hand in hand. But there's a fine dividing line. Stress refers to any demand placed on the body, either physical or mental. Anxiety, however, is the feeling of fear or worry alongside the physical symptoms.

Stress, therefore, isn't always bad. Indeed, it is a normal reaction to a potentially dangerous or emotionally difficult situation. Problems arise when the stress response persists for long periods. There are two types of repeated stress:

  • Episodic acute stress: When a person experiences frequent episodes of acute stress. For instance, a paramedic, firefighter, or even someone living with an abusive partner.
  • Chronic stress: Stress that persists continually for prolonged periods becomes chronic. People living in poverty, with disabilities, or with a chronic illness are particularly vulnerable to chronic stress.

Both forms of stress can manifest with similar symptoms, such as:

  • Chronic pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Low sex drive
  • Stomach problems
  • Lack of appetite/overeating
  • Poor concentration
  • Tiredness

If stress persists for an extended period, it can severely impact a person's health worsening cardiovascular disease, depression, high blood pressure, or a weakened immune system. The solution is often to remove oneself from the stressor or to implement healthy habits. Speaking to a professional is also critical.


Detecting depression

While depression can be the most severe of the three, it's the simplest to identify. Only three symptoms define the disorder:

  • Anhedonia – lack of enjoyment in activities
  • Low mood
  • Fatigue

There are a multitude of additional symptoms, however. These include irritability, sadness, low sex drive, inability to concentrate, sluggish movements, difficulty sleeping (or excessive sleep), headache, and even digestive problems.

According to the DSM-V, to qualify for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), the symptoms must persist for at least two weeks and affect your functioning. Depression is readily treatable, however. Although it often goes undetected.

Common causes include sudden life changes, drug use, grief, family history, early childhood trauma, chronic illness, and more.

If you feel any of the above symptoms, it's important to see a professional. However, taking time out for yourself - to rest and recuperate – is also essential.

Be kind to yourself.



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