Key Differences Between Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Chase Campbell
November 17, 2023
7 minutes

Stress, anxiety, and depression are widely discussed mental health issues in our modern world. Our busy schedules and the constant pressure to be productive undermine our ability to stay grounded.

We’re responsible for our mental health. We must take care of our minds by watching our stress levels and learning how our body’s stress response system contributes to our success or downfall. 

“We should not try to “get rid” of a neurosis, but rather to experience what it means, what it has to teach, what its purpose is.” - Dr. Carl Jung, Civilization in Transition. 

What is Stress

Most people today feel that the best course of action is to seek ways to “avoid” stress and live a completely stress-free life. 

It’s not possible. Nor is it advised. 

Stress exists because it can be beneficial. At Hanu, we say that stress is inherently good. It’s a powerful part of our human system that can lead a productive, healthy, and happy life. The key is to understand the positive side of stress.

The body’s stress response system is a valuable asset that can help us gain control over our thoughts and actions - if you know how to use it right!

Your natural stress response system works to release necessary chemicals that help you focus, improve your immune system, and shape your ability to adapt to new experiences and challenges. 

The main idea here is that stress is not something to fight - it’s something to embrace. Your stress response system is designed to prepare you to act. Whenever you need to show up and perform at your best, your stress response system is what powers you. 

Many of us experience a stress overload that affects this system, causing the “on” button to stay switched on. If you want a healthy relationship with stress, it is essential not to fight it and avoid it constantly. It’s better to cultivate a relationship with stress by voluntarily training this response to work in your favor through a healthy balance of rest, exercise, community, and stimulation. 

Stress Image

Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling closely tied to stress. It’s often considered a form of stress. Not being present often causes anxiety. Worrying about a time other than the present can be very disorienting. If you can think back to the last time you felt anxious, it was probably due to fear of an impending discussion, a significant life event, and generally just fear of something that hasn’t happened yet. 

Anxiety is a common byproduct when the stress response system we mentioned above becomes overly activated. The stress response causes the heart to beat faster, blood vessels to constrict, and overall preps the body to perform in a stressful situation by secreting adrenaline and other vital hormones. Over time, as stress compounds and becomes associated (in psychology, we call this a conditioned stimulus and response), anxiety arises.

The stress response, when overactive, can make individuals feel uneasy and constantly “switched on.” If you have ever felt that feeling in your chest when you have a lot of anxiety, your body is trying to stay activated while your mind wants things to calm down. Anxiety is, more or less, a result of confusion between your mind and body.

Psychology pioneer Carl Jung has a powerful stance on anxiety and how we can best resolve these feelings. According to him, the key to resolving anxious feelings is not to turn away from them or attempt to “get rid” of them. Instead, his findings led to his theorizing that it was essential to embrace these feelings of anxiety and listen to what they tell us.

While this may seem very theoretical, studies have shown that kids who are more in touch with their emotions and aware of how they feel significantly reduce anxiety and depression symptoms

Additionally, placing excess pressure on ourselves can increase the odds of developing OCD and anxiety disorders. We must find balance in our hectic schedules and learn to be gentle with ourselves rather than forceful regarding our feelings, goals, and aspirations.  

Your stress management system is a generalized system that can be controlled if you take the proper steps. Maintaining your stress management system will go a long way towards noticing anxiety more healthily. You’ll also embrace what your feelings are telling you rather than fighting them off and suppressing them. 

Depression Image

The Role of Stress and Anxiety in Depression 

For those who have experienced the disease, having depression means more than just feeling down and out. 

A critical study conducted by researchers in Sweden demonstrated an essential link between stress levels and depression. Their research showed a protein in the brain responsible for serotonin function, and that chronic stress alters the production of critical stress hormones. They found that this protein’s levels depleted over time, making it more difficult for mice to handle stress.

The tests showed that chronic stress triggers depression due to the depletion of critical proteins in the brain. This study points to the stress response system we discuss here and how its health directly affects how we feel physically and mentally. 

Stress plays a direct role in the severity of depression and an individual’s ability to overcome these issues and make a positive change. Chronic stress damages the autonomic nervous system and your ability to modulate between activation and rest properly. Studies also tell us that ANS dysfunction is also associated with levels of depression. 

Suppose your depression is flaring up, and you are having difficulty staying positive. In that case, you can try to take measures to improve your mood  through exercise, clean eating, meditation, and deep breathing. 

Improve Your Relationship with Stress, Improve Your Mental Health 

Overall, we can see that stress triggers anxiety and depression in individuals. Compounding stress is usually the stepping stone to more clinical-related symptoms like anxiety and depression. The system works as a feedback loop, where an excessive stress response results in lingering anxiety, which causes depression.  

While plenty of other factors are involved, we can see that the autonomic nervous system’s ability to handle stressors and rest properly is vital for maintaining good mental health. Understanding the importance of reducing unhealthy stress reminds us that training the ANS can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

If you want to begin to improve anxiety or depression symptoms, a great place to start is to learn how to engage your stress response system mindfully. Remember the importance of being active, performing yoga and meditation exercises, getting plenty of active rest, and even trying proven methods such as cold baths and apnea tables.