Am I Depressed or Just Stressed?

Fall signifies a time of transition.  Not only are the seasons changing, but often our lives are also changing.  Whether it’s going back to school, starting a new phase at work, or making other changes to our personal life, September can signify a time of new beginnings.  Typically, with transition, there comes stress.   When going back to school ourselves, it is important to know how, when, and why stress can lead into a level of depression.

For those going to school, whether it be undergraduate or graduate, the extreme change in surroundings is likely the most stressful event that occurs.  For many, there is a new and radical stage of independence when students leave their homes and families for the first time.  Being removed from one’s comfort zone can leave space for uncertainty and bad decisions.  Feeling isolated and alone from those who care about you can make the outcomes of these bad decisions even more painful.  A separation from the student’s original support system can lead to feelings of isolation, chronic sadness, inadequacy, and/or low self-esteem.  This can become a vicious cycle that only enhances the original depression by deepening the isolation and negative emotional states.  

Depression can be minor or major.  What’s important is recognizing how you are feeling and how other parts of your life are being affected.  If you notice that your school work is starting to suffer, you are becoming less social, or you are missing your family significantly, you may want to consider if you are experiencing other symptoms of depression.  Ask yourself if you are feeling sad, anxious, hopeless, guilty, worthless, helpless, or irritable regularly.  You might also notice that your energy has decreased, you don’t participate in activities you used to enjoy, you have trouble concentrating or making decisions, there are significant changes to your sleep or appetite, body ailments or pains that do not go away, or thoughts of or attempts of suicide.  If you are noticing any of these symptoms, contacting a mental health professional is strongly suggested.  Whether through a private provider or a professional within your campus system, it is important for you to seek help when back-to-school stress has crossed the line into depression.

There are a number of positive activities you can do for yourself if you start to notice this transition occurring. 

  1. Make and stick to an exercise routine.  Exercise releases endorphins to enhance positive feelings within the body that can naturally fight depression.  This tactic can work well for mild to even moderate depression, as well as increase your overall health.
  2. Stay social.  Focus on your school work, but also make sure to schedule time for healthy social activities.  Even if you have to study large amounts, try to do it in a group setting.  This will both increase your productivity and your social interaction.
  3. Use counseling services.  Whether you choose a private provider or the professionals on your campus, it is your right to seek help.  Professionals are there to assist you and you deserve that assistance.
  4. Stay in touch with family and friends from home.  Technology has increased significantly in recent decades and it’s easier than ever to stay in contact with people.  Schedule times to speak with people from home so you continue to feel connected and supported in your relationships.
  5. Get enough sleep.  Making sure that you are not over-exhausted by maintaining a regular sleep schedule can help you avoid depression.  This appropriate sleep will also help you to enhance your ability to form memories, making it easier to learn.

On average, 30% of college students yearly can be identified as depressed.  Recognizing when your stress levels are becoming too overwhelming and reversing that progression is critical.  Luckily, there are a number of tactics you can utilize on your own to alter that course.  And even if these are less successful, remember that there are always mental health professionals ready and willing to help.

Authored by:  Kaitlan Gibbons, PsyD