Just “stressed”? Or in distress?

During this COVID-19 pandemic we are feeling all the feels! Feelings of sadness and fear are common reactions to chronic stress and part of our humanity. We don’t need to pathologize feelings unnecessarily but we also can’t just pretend when those feelings have become disordered and dysfunctional. We need to stay safe and sane (as I wrote in my blog a few days ago!). So, here are 3 questions to answer to tell the difference between mental health and illness.

Just stressed? Or distressed…

Ask yourself…

Apart from identifying whether you are feeling more depressed or more anxious (or both!), ask yourself these questions:

Question 1: How long have I been experiencing these feelings?

This assesses duration. If you have been experiencing a depressed mood for most of the day, every day of a two-week period, then this is too long. In the case of generalized anxiety – more than 6 months of excessive worrying most of the time could indicate a problem.

Question 2: What other changes am I experiencing?  

This is about the severity of the problem.  You may no longer just be feeling emotionally depressed or anxious, but also experiencing changes in cognitive ability and physical health, like:

  • slowed, racing or confused thinking
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering and making decisions
  • significant weight gain or weight loss
  • sleep disturbances and fatigue
  • muscle tension
  • pain
  • other health changes.

In other words, the feelings have spread from the psychological domain into other domains of your wellbeing.

Question 3: Am I still functioning well in all areas of my life?

Consider whether you are still caring properly for your personal hygiene and appearance; interacting well with others and performing work duties adequately. Compare your level of functioning now with your typical or previous functioning in these areas. If there is a noticeable change or you feel very distressed about the difference, this could confirm a problem.

If your answers to these questions concern you, talk to those close to you whom you trust. Do they agree with you? Have they noticed these changes too? Are they also concerned?

Now, what?

Then, consult with your healthcare practitioner. Many healthcare practitioners in the mental healthcare team are providing telehealth (consultations via telephonic or online platforms) during the lockdown period. Your mental wellbeing is as important as your physical health – so get help if you need to!

Consult your mental health practitioner online.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) also offers great resources and support. Follow this link to their website.


The symptoms of depression and anxiety may also be explained by abusing substances (like alcohol or drugs) or by other medical conditions. So, discuss this with your healthcare practitioner too.


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5. American Psychiatric Association.

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