Understanding Stress, Anxiety and Depression
The Modern Epidemic
Despite modern life offering unprecedented technological benefits, and medical science being able to cure or alleviate many more physical ailments than ever before, somehow "happiness" seems more elusive than ever for a growing number.
Stress, anxiety and depression are a modern epidemic affecting literally millions. The effects of these debilitating conditions are made even worse by the stigma they carry.
If you're unfortunate enough to suffer a physical problem friends, family, colleagues invariably rally around with offers of help. If you're unfortunate enough to suffer a mental problem those same people frequently keep their distance as though you're highly contagious or somehow responsible for your suffering.
Stress, Anxiety and Depression Defined
What is Stress?
Stress is the discomfort caused by life's pressures, and in particular the perception that the pressures we face are greater than our capacity to cope with them. As we each have different perceptions of our own capacity (and different actual capacities) different things cause stress for different people, and different people have different stress thresholds, ie the amount of pressures they can face before becoming stressed.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an irrational and debilitating feeling of fear that may accompany stress, or may occur without any apparent reason.
(NB: anxiety is not the same as fear. If a guy with a gun is running wild on your street it's natural to feel fear, that fear might even save your life by rationally directing you to safety.)
Anxiety can take various forms, eg:
- panic attacks are episodes of acute anxiety giving a whole range of unpleasant physical symptoms such as breathlessness, heart palpitations, sweating, faintness etc.
- social anxiety is discomfort or inability in interacting socially
- phobias are irrational fears of specific things, eg: enclosed spaces, open spaces, flying, driving, spiders etc etc etc.
- generalized anxiety disorder, ie: excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry about numerous, frequently unconnected, things.
Depression is a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person's thoughts, behavior, feelings and sense of well-being.[Salmans, Sandra (1997). Depression: Questions You Have – Answers You Need. People's Medical Society.] Depression may result from prolonged bouts of stress or anxiety.
Essentially depression produces a feeling of hopelessness or "why bother?". Depressed people can become reclusive, avoid going out and/or meeting people, lose appetite or binge eat or drink, lose interest in previously enjoyed activities and generally find life more of a burden than a pleasure.
Sometimes the depressed person can become too low to seek a cure. In such cases the role of loved ones in pointing them in the right direction is essential in preventing an ever-downward spiral.
Origins of Stress, Anxiety and Depression
Stress, anxiety and depression are all related to an evolutionary mechanism "designed" to aid our survival; ie the sympathetic / parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the fight or flight response. Essentially, when faced with danger the sympathetic nervous system triggers all kind of physiological responses (eg dilating pupils, increasing heart rate and blood pressure etc) that make us ready to fight or run away.
This mechanism served your ancestors well enough to keep them alive at least long enough to pro-create - else you wouldn't be reading this!
However, in modern life the "danger" that produces this response isn't a tiger hiding in the bushes that will be gone in a few seconds or minutes. It's constant work-based deadlines, it's the mailman bring bill upon bill, it's debts piling up and being chased by increasingly threatening creditors, it's a troublesome teenager etc etc etc. All these things are not acute, but ongoing, leaving us in a constant energy-draining state of readiness.
Beating Stress, Anxiety and Depression
The bad news is that there are probably as many cures or coping strategies as there are sufferers, so finding one that works for you may not be easy.
The good news is that numerous people have successfully overcome these conditions, and with a little effort you can too.
The absolutely essential first step is to not beat yourself up about suffering stress, anxiety or depression. It's no more your fault than catching flu. NB: These conditions are also be a good way of finding out who your real friends are - probably not those who choose to keep their distance.
You only have a problem if it's a problem to you. If you choose to avoid certain people / places / activities because they cause you stress / anxiety / discomfort, but avoiding them doesn't prevent you leading the life you want to lead, then you don't have a problem. Regardless of what anyone else tells you.
Ultimately, any long term strategy for beating stress, anxiety or depression comes from within yourself. There is no "take this course of pills and you'll feel better" magic wand. As such the (guided) self help route should be the first option considered and most often yields positive results.
However, for some people external help may be necessary to prompt the required internal changes. This help can take the form of talking treatments (counseling), medication(s), or both.
Remember, sufferers of stress, anxiety and depression are not alone - you are in the company of many millions! You are not without hope, many sufferers overcome these conditions to live fulfilling lives, often achieving more than those that have never experienced such lows.