Stress, Anxiety, and Depression: What's the Difference?

June 27, 2009

Couple relaxing in a park

Feeling anxious can be normal sometimes. Psychiatrists reveal some of the signals that may indicate if it's something more.

Know the difference between stress, anxiety, and depression so you can take charge of your emotional wellness.

What is stress?

Stress is the emotional and physical strain in reaction to particular events in our lives that are perceived as threatening, harmful, or demanding. You may feel "stressed" because you're overwhelmed with work or home life.

Stress happens when we can't cope with the challenges in our lives. Stress impacts people in different ways. A person can have an isolated stressful event or experience ongoing stress. During these events, the adrenal glands release adrenaline, a hormone which activates the body's defense mechanisms. Adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to rise, muscles to tense, and pupils of the eyes to dilate.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension or fear and is frequently accompanied by a sense of impending doom. It's normal to feel anxious when facing something difficult or dangerous. Mild anxiety can be positive.

Anxiety can be detrimental in the absence of a stressful event, if it interferes with normal life, or continues for a prolonged period of time. Physical symptoms of anxiety occur when the brain sends messages to parts of the body to prepare for the "fight or flight" response. Your heart and lungs work faster, and your brain also releases certain hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Common emotional and physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability or anger
  • Restlessness
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea
  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension
  • Insomnia

Millions of people across the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder. There are six major types of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, phobia, posttraumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder. Each of these has their own symptom profile. For further details about each type, visit www.livingwithanxiety.com

What is depression?

Depression is characterized by feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement that last every day for at least two weeks. Other symptoms of depression include feelings of worthlessness or guilt, suicidal thoughts, loss of concentration, decreased energy, slowed thinking and movement, appetite loss, and sleep problems.

Certain life events, such as loss of a loved one, and disease states, such as dementia and hypothyroidism, can lead to depression. Anxiety and depression often co-exist - people with anxiety disorders almost always have some degree of depression, while people with depression commonly have anxiety.

Both depression and anxiety can go away over time. However, associated symptoms persist or even return without the proper treatment. Chronic depression or anxiety can cause low self-esteem and poor quality of life. In addition, there's a lot of evidence showing that untreated depression and anxiety can lead or add to medical conditions, including diabetes, cardiac problems, and cancer. When medical conditions exist or arise, a vicious cycle can occur, fueling anxiety and depression.

Coping with stress

You can learn to manage your stress and lead a healthier life. Identifying and managing the stressors is definitely helpful, but sometimes, they are out of your control. Below are some ways you can take control of your stress and keep it in check:

  • Have a positive attitude
  • Express your feelings, opinions, or beliefs
  • Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga, or tai-chi
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals
  • Manage your time more effectively
  • Get sufficient rest and sleep
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs
  • Seek social support

Treatment for anxiety and depression

If you feel anxious or depressed, it is important to recognize this. Some individuals can grab hold of the situation by using the above techniques. If your symptoms are significant, or if you have a genetic tendency to these problems, professional help is recommended. In the professional setting, anxiety and depression are treated with medication and/or psychotherapy, and these treatments can be quite successful.

Quiz: Are you stressed out?

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