Mental health is (thankfully) no longer an off-the-table topic. In 2022 many of us are more comfortable than ever discussing our mental wellness—privately and publicly. But with more people freely discussing their inner pains, frustrations, fears, and exhaustions the definitions of mental health terms can get a little foggy. This confusion is especially apparent in discussions around stress, anxiety, and depression—three conditions that are interrelated, but not synonymous.
It’s important to remember that no one owes anyone else proof that their experiences fit into the molds of mental health conditions. But it can be helpful—especially if you’re seeking support—to understand the nuances.
Stress triggers come in all shapes and forms. They can be personal or political, career-based or relationship-based.
Stress levels were on the rise even before the Covid-19 pandemic, but months of loss, fear, and isolation compounded the impact of daily stress on our lives. The annual Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association saw a large majority of Americans assigning unprecedented stress levels to economic concerns and geopolitical uncertainty.
There are no guidelines that constitute what counts as stress. But once stress does hit, it’s loosely regarded as the body’s short-term response to feeling pressured or threatened. Stress is typically caused by an external force, and the mental and physical feelings of stress tend to dissipate once the threat passes. But when feelings of stress don’t ease up once a deadline has passed or a conflict has resolved, stress can easily cross the threshold and become anxiety.
Whereas stress is often easily attributable, anxiety is shiftier, and often anxiety isn’t triggered by an identifiable external force at all. According to the APA, anxiety is defined by persistent, obsessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. Anxiety’s incessant gnawing creates feelings of dread that color every facet of daily life. Because anxiety is so pervasive and independent of external events, there is no expiration date. If left to its own devices, anxiety can continue on and on, and grow and grow.
There is a strong overlap between anxiety and depression. Both conditions share similar side effects, including insomnia, persistent fears, and, in some cases, physical pain. But where anxiety is largely categorized by feelings of excessive worry, depression brings feelings of excessive loss. Hopelessness, lack of interest, and overwhelming sadness differentiate depression from other mental health disorders.
When it comes to diagnosing depression, physicians pay close attention to symptoms and how long someone has been experiencing them. Loss of energy, interest, changes in appetite, feelings of worthlessness, and, even, thoughts of self-harm lasting at least two weeks constitute a depression diagnosis.
Healing from stress, anxiety, and depression
It’s difficult to determine how your symptoms and changes in mood may correlate to a distinct mental health condition, and in this age of misinformation, self-diagnosing is not recommended.
When it comes to mental health there’s no such thing as insignificant symptoms or lesser conditions. Whether you’re experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression—or a general change in mood that you can’t quite put your finger on—there is never a wrong time to ask for support.
And the mental healthcare landscape is finally expanding. With more treatments like Ketamine IV therapy and TMS, patients have a greater chance at finding support that fits their immediate needs and long-term goals.
No one’s experiences with mental health are identical. The boundaries around conditions are not meant to exclude people from treatment or diminish their experience. Rather, giving people more context and knowledge around the distinctions between mental health conditions may actually help people prioritize their emotional well-being and seek out resources and support to help manage their health.