It is not uncommon to hear people describe themselves as feeling ‘down’, ‘blue’ or ‘stressed’ when facing more challenging times in their life. But how do you know whether you are anxious or stressed or depressed? And when is what you are feeling ‘bad enough’ to warrant seeking professional help? Understanding the difference between these three conditions can help you to more clearly identify strategies to better manage your symptoms.
Summarized below are the key distinctions between stress, anxiety and depression.
Stress has been given a bad rap over the years. The truth is that some stress is actually beneficial. It provides the driving force to motivate us to get things done and achieve goals. It becomes a problem when we feel paralyzed and overwhelmed by the challenges before us. Then worry sets in, and we feel ‘stressed’.
How we experience this is unique to each of us. Different people are stressed by different things; equally every person expresses it in their own different ways. The essential ingredient to understanding it is how you think about something and your response to an event that is the key factor in deciding whether it will be stressful to you.
Stress also has a physiological component – using a biologically programmed response left over from our heritage, the body releases chemicals designed originally to enable us to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ when faced with danger. These days, you don’t need to be in a life threatening situation for this response to happen. Simply perceiving something as immediately stressful can elicit a physiological reaction resulting in bodily changes such as elevated breathing and heart rate, sweating, and muscle tension – unless you can learn to break the cycle.
There are techniques designed to reduce stress should you start to feel overwhelmed which can be taught during talk therapy. Some approaches will help you to better manage in an immediately situation and others take a longer term perspective with the aim of preventing your stress peaking at dysfunctional levels.
Many people talk about feeling stressed when they may, in fact, be suffering from anxiety. People with an anxiety disorder feel fear or panic in situations when most other people would not feel so anxious. Often there is no specific trigger and the person lives with an almost constant nagging feeling of worry or impending doom, sometimes which manifests as a panic or anxiety attack. Anxiety can be a severely debilitating condition. It can lead a person into avoiding certain situations or places where they fear they may become anxious – sometimes resulting in them becoming so fearful they are unable to leave their own home. Having an attack is a frightening experience – the heart races, breathing becomes labored, and sweating breaks out. Often the person thinks they may be having a heart attack or stroke because their physiological response is so severe.
Similar to stress, at the core of overwhelming anxiety are thoughts which is good news for sufferers. It means that, with proper support and in time, an individual is likely to be able to modify their thoughts sufficiently to at least reduce, if not completely eliminate, such extreme reactions.
Unlike stress and anxiety, depression has less of an immediate physiological impact and therefore, it can be harder to spot in yourself or others. The term depression has become so common in our language that these days’ people often refer to feeling ‘depressed’ when in actuality they are sad. While sadness is an uncomfortable feeling and can be quite debilitating for short periods of time, it is a very different concept. Someone suffering from a depressive illness feels hopeless, despair and anger. Energy levels are usually very low, and people often feel overwhelmed by the day-to-day tasks and personal relationships so essential to life. It seems to ‘creep up’ on people, often (but not always) following times of sustained emotional stress. Severely depressed individuals are at a much higher risk of suicide than other people in the community. Because of this it is vital that if you believe you are depressed you should consult your medical practitioner as soon as possible for assessment and diagnosis. It has received a lot of attention in the media and is far more widely accepted today than it has ever been in the past. The treatment for anxiety and depression is similar. Usually antidepressant medication is prescribed along with talk therapy. There are also many support groups and various resources available to sufferers of depression.
Depression and Anxiety – the double whammy!
To compound the difficulties, depression and anxiety are frequently associated, in which case the symptoms of both disorders are more severe compared to if you had the disorders independently. It can take longer for the symptoms to resolve, making sticking to treatment a challenge for the sufferer. It is important to know that experiencing both has a much higher suicide rate than depression alone
When to get help
The most important thing is to trust your instincts – if you are finding it hard to cope on a regular basis over several weeks, approach your General Practitioner, Therapist, and/or Psychologist to discuss the resources available to support you through a difficult time.
Doley Psychology Services. (2008). Am i stressed, depressed or anxious?. Retrieved from http://www.firefocus.net/DPS/docs/Stress-dep-anx_webFeb_08.pdf7