Understanding Stress, Anxiety and Depression | Happiness is…

Having introduced my happiness is… series recently, I thought that it would be sensible to discuss stress, anxiety, and depression as issues that contribute to unhappiness.

Discussing these issues will provide the foundations to build on what we know, with a view to finding ways to continually improve our outlook on life.

Stress, anxiety and depression touch many, if not all, of us in some way or another, and understanding the differences can help us to understand how best to manage them. This, although perhaps a simplistic view, can help us to stay in control and retain a clear idea of what we need to do to remain happy.

Just as a disclaimer, I am not a medical professional. However, a career in HR and research on both a professional and personal level led me to develop a greater interest. The people of the world appear increasingly aware of how they feel, and stress, anxiety, and depression are commonly diagnosed as a result of modern life. Consequently, I thought I would share my understanding in the hope that it can help others to better recognise the differences.

Now, I have no intention to be condescending in any way. There will be many who already have a good understanding through training or individual personal experience. However, I am writing this post because I found the similarities between stress, anxiety, and depression to be very confusing and difficult to separate.

 

Stress

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

As Ruby Wax proclaimed to us in January 2017 for her show ‘Frazzled’, we all need stress in our lives. From my own experience, I can vouch for the fact that it can help keep us productive, competitive and on our toes, but where does the stress come from?

Pressure. Pressure is the root cause, but in the same way that stress is not always a negative thing, pressure can also be helpful to us. However, when the extent of the pressure ignites feelings of not being able to cope, it breaches the realms of stress.

It is important to note that individuals react differently to different levels of pressure and stress. A situation that is stressful to one person may be motivating and a challenge to another. In addition, one stressful situation alone may not be an issue, but combined with other stressors it can, at times, feel to be too much.

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

It is widely documented that stress leads to a release of hormones, which prepare us to respond. Known as the stress response, we most commonly prepare to fight or flee, also known as fight or flight. This is where stress and anxiety are very similar. These preparations lead to an increased blood flow to the parts of the body we are most likely to need such as our legs and arms. In addition, the heart rate and breathing increases, also known as ‘an adrenaline rush’, as a temporary energy boost. This reaction presents potential problems in our everyday lives. When feeling this way, the increased blood flow to important muscles means less blood flow to the brain, reducing functionality and generating feelings of not being able to think clearly. Prolonged exposure to these feelings can be significantly detrimental to our health and wellbeing.

Common signs of stress include:

  • Sweating

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Loss of appetite

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Low self-esteem

  • Headaches

Although the options to prevent stress are limited, there are many when it comes to managing stress. I will cover a range of these options in future content but, for now, let’s take a look at anxiety.

 

Anxiety

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Whereas stress results from pressure, anxiety is product of fear and encompasses a wide range of forms. From minor nerves to acute panic, we all experience different levels of anxiety. As with stress, anxiety can be positive, even exciting and fun, but if it develops into a disorder, it can have a serious impact on an individual’s life and, as a result, their happiness.

Like stress, anxiety stems from our body’s natural reaction to danger and/or emergency. Although it can arise from something that the brain determines to be an immediate threat happening in the present, it is often brought on by fears of the future, whether that be a specific event or a wider concerns such as financial worries or emotional uncertainties.

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

When anxiety levels progress beyond the lower levels experienced by many of us each day, it can lead to scary panic attacks and/or irrational fears.

Anxiety presents itself in a similar way to stress including:

  • Rapid breathing

  • Irregular and fast heartbeat

  • Feeling irritable

  • Churning stomach and loose bowels

  • Dry mouth

Anxiety can result in:

  • Reduced concentration

  • Loss of self-confidence

  • Feelings of irritability and/or depression

  • Difficulty sleeping

As with stress, there are ways to manage anxiety and I will cover this in a future post.

 

Depression

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

During my time in HR, I have often seen GP issued FIT notes (A.K.A GP/medical certificate) advising an individual as unfit for work due to low mood. What I didn’t initially realise was that low mood is the precursor to depression.

Low mood can include feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, worry, tiredness, and frustration. However, within a few days or weeks, a low mood will usually have improved and returned to a normal level.

Depression surfaces when the low mood extends beyond just a few weeks, continuing to negatively impact on an individual’s life. There are also some specific types of depression related to pregnancy, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

As with stress and anxiety, symptoms of depression range across a spectrum. In it's mild form, everything in life is normal but feels harder and less worthwhile. However, in it's extreme, severe feelings of being unable to cope and/or make it through a day can potentially lead to thoughts and acts of suicide.

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling low, upset or tearful

  • Finding no pleasure in things you would usually enjoy

  • Feeling hopeless

In addition, depression can result in:

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Loss of appetite

  • Physical aches and pains

  • Difficulty thinking or speaking clearly

Stress, Anxiety and Depression

There are many other symptoms and behaviours that result from depression. For more information, the website www.mind.org.uk provides a comprehensive list of these.

In reality, the information here merely scratches the surface of stress, anxiety, and depression. If your feelings are significantly impacting on your wellbeing, visit a GP to discuss your circumstances and obtain professional support. There are many everyday ways to manage stress, anxiety, and depression and I will cover these in future content. For now, I hope this has helped to differentiate each heading in my quest to help us all achieve happiness.

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Images courtesy of Pixabay.

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