Are You Experiencing Stress or Mental Illness? Here’s How You Can Tell


Are You Experiencing Stress or Mental Illness? Here’s How You Can Tell

Stress is something I think about a lot. That’s because my job is all about understanding and helping families through stressful situations. When going through stressful situations, my clients often worry that their reaction isn’t “normal.” I tell them, “Your reaction is likely not only normal, but healthy.”

Sometimes when we feel bad, we assume that something must be wrong with us. If you are feeling stressed, here is some information that can help.

What Is Stress?

Simply put, stress is our body’s reaction to change, whether that change is positive (like getting married) or negative (like losing your job). Because change is a normal part of life, it means that stress is also a normal part of life. In fact, our stress response is not only normal, but it’s actually an important tool our bodies use to help us to prepare and adapt to change.  

What Does Stress Look Like?

Stress can look different depending on the size of the change and what the changes means for your life. When you feel stressed, you may notice physical changes in your body, including increased heartrate, quicker breathing, and muscle tension. This is called the “fight-or-flight” response.

You may notice it’s hard to focus, you may feel more or less hungry than usual, and your sleep might be interrupted. Emotionally, you may feel nervous, worried, overwhelmed, irritable, or even sad.

Listen to Your Body

Even though these feelings are usually unpleasant, believe it or not, this is your body trying to protect you or tell you something. For example:

  • The fight-or-flight response helps us to respond quickly if we are in danger or threatened.
  • Feeling anxious or worried about something is our body’s way of communicating that the thing we are anxious or worried about is very important to us. That feeling of “pressure” can help motivate us to prepare or make changes needed to protect that important thing.
  • Feeling overwhelmed tells us that we need to prioritize and focus on one thing at a time.
  • Feelings of sadness is our body’s way of telling us that we have experienced some sort of loss. The “slowing down” feeling that accompanies sadness helps us to process that loss and figure out how to move forward.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Stress

A common myth is that all stress is a bad thing. Something we should avoid at all costs. But short-term stress can be helpful. It can help us to grow and learn from our experiences, be better problem-solvers, clarify our values, and help us learn to tolerate and regulate our emotions. This is especially true if we have social support from others to help us through the stressful situation.

However, long-term, chronic stress is different. When a stressor just doesn’t go away, it puts our body in a constant state of pressure that can negatively impact physical and mental health. With chronic stress, what starts as a healthy stress response can turn into depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder.

Stress vs. Depression

Some stress reactions can look like symptoms of depression. For example, common stress reactions that are also symptoms of depression include feeling easily irritated, feeling sad, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, change in eating habits, and worries that you can’t overcome this situation. However, an important distinction is that stress is a reaction to a situation. And for many stressors, like those that are related to any sort of loss, feelings of sadness is a healthy emotional response.

In contrast, depression is when these reactions are ongoing no matter what the situation. Think of it like driving through a rainstorm versus having a dark cloud following you wherever you go.

Stress vs. Anxiety Disorder

Feeling nervous, anxious, or worried is one of the most common stress reactions. Just like sadness, anxiety is a healthy emotional response to many stressful situations. It can help motivate us to prepare for an upcoming change or put helpful precautions in place to protect ourselves or others.

Think about any time you prepared for something important, like a job interview or the arrival of a new baby. The anxiety that you felt was your body’s way of saying, “This is very important to me, and I want to prepare and protect it.”

However, anxiety can become a problem when you feel that way most days and most situations. When this happens, anxiety stops being helpful and causes problems in our lives and relationships.

Stress vs. Posttraumatic Stress

Our bodies are incredible. When placed in a dangerous or traumatic situation, our fight-or-flight system kicks in and protects us. When the danger is over, our brains start to do the hard work of trying to understand what happened and how we can protect ourselves in the future. We might think about the event a lot, feel anxious or on guard, question our role in the event, and have trouble sleeping. This is a normal stress response. Within a few months, our bodies and brains have usually done most of the work of processing through the event and we start to feel like ourselves again.

However, for some people that healing process gets stuck. Instead of feeling less stressed over a few months, they feel the same or worse. That “stuckness” in the stress response is called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Reach Out for Help

If you are feeling stressed, reach out to others for support, listen to your body, and make sure you are engaging in self-care. If you think you may have a mental health disorder, such as depression, an anxiety disorder, or PTSD, it’s important to seek help.

Call your doctor or a local mental health clinic, which can help guide you in the right direction.


Vanessa Jacoby, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor and Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a child specialization in the Division of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She is member of the STRONG STAR Multidisciplinary Research Consortium and the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD, whose mission is to alleviate and prevent posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other deployment-related problems in active-duty service members and their families. In her work at STRONG STAR, Dr. Jacoby conducts prevention and supportive programs with military families with young children experiencing deployment.

The opinions, representations, and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author, and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions, or representations.