Anxiety, depression, and stress are common mental health conditions. However, people often lump them together, but they don’t share a lot of similarities. Therefore, you need to know the difference between the three to understand what you’re dealing with at a particular time.
First, however, always get a diagnosis from a mental health professional. This article discusses anxiety, stress, and depression, highlighting their differences. It also covers the treatment you can get for each of them.
Anxiety is the brain’s way of reacting to stress and alerting you of potential danger. People who experience anxiety feel fear, nervousness, and worry. Stressful situations trigger it; hence, it shares similar biological and physical elements with stress.
You might experience anxiety:
- When trying something new
- Before making significant life changes
- When making important decisions
Anxiety becomes clinically worrying when it persists even when the perceived threat is non-existent. It means if you feel anxious beyond what is ‘normal,’ you’ll likely get diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. Every year, it affects 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population.
When dealing with anxiety disorders, you are constantly fearful about your health, performance at work or school, relationships, etc. You’ll exhibit the following signs:
- Sleeping problems
- Inability to manage fear and worries
- Brain fog
- A feeling of dread, panic, or doom
- Physical restlessness, irritability, or always being on edge
- Constant fatigue
You’ll also exhibit physical symptoms like constant headaches, nausea, muscle tension, and diarrhea. Once you notice these signs, see a medical practitioner.
Depression is one of the most discussed mental health conditions. It refers to feelings of severe despondency and dejection. However, unlike anxiety which can be linked to stress, less is known about the causes and mechanisms of depression.
However, it is a debilitating condition that causes people to lose their ability to function in different areas of their life. Depression goes beyond feeling sad, low, or hopeless once in a while or when things get tough. It leaves you with a tragic or empty feeling that lasts for an extended period. As a result, even when experiencing positive events, you feel depressed.
Data from the World Health Organization shows that an estimated 5.0% of adults suffer from depression globally. It is also the leading cause of disability worldwide and can lead to suicide.
According to the National Institute on Mental Health, an estimated 21 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2020. The number represented 8.4% of all U.S. adults.
People who are depressed have the following symptoms:
- Chronic tiredness or sleep problems
- Thoughts of death and dying
- Unexplained pains and gastrointestinal problems
- Loss of enjoyment or interest in daily tasks and hobbies
- Feeling hopeless and pessimistic
- Difficulty making decisions, concentrating or remembering details
- Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
- Changes in appetite and weight
Previously, researchers associated depression with a biochemical imbalance of neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. However, they now use a more expansive view that focuses on the changes in electrical activity between neurons or nerve cells in the brain.
The difficulty in pinpointing the exact cause of depression means that a treatment that is effective for one person may not be effective for another. Therefore, doctors prescribe treatment on a person-to-person basis and do not use a one-fit-all approach.
Are Anxiety and Depression Similar?
While the meaning of anxiety and depression differ, they have a lot of similar symptoms. This sometimes results in a misdiagnosis. Also, it is pretty standard for a person to suffer anxiety and depression simultaneously.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America data shows that nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In addition, 41.6 percent of people in a 2015 study reportedly have major depression and anxiety disorder within 12 months.
Some of the overlapping symptoms of anxiety and depression are:
- Shifts in sleep patterns
- Aches and pain or stomach issues without a clear cause
- Increased irritability
- Changes in energy level
- Trouble concentrating, focusing, and memory
Both conditions also involve rumination. It refers to a persistent loop of dark, sad, or negative thoughts. Usually, you may want to stop these thoughts but find yourself unable to.
If you exhibit any of these symptoms, consult a mental health professional. The doctor will examine you to determine whether you have an anxiety disorder or depression.
As mentioned earlier, stress and anxiety are similar but not the same. The primary difference is that stress results from daily pressures or a threatening situation, while anxiety is a stress reaction. Also, anxiety lasts longer than stress.
Stress is a feeling of emotional and physical tension from events that make you feel angry, frustrated, or nervous. In short bursts, stress can be positive, like when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. However, if it lasts for a long time, it becomes harmful.
The America Psychological Association (APA) stated in a 2020 report on stress that the United States faces a national mental health crisis that could yield severe health and social consequences for years to come. Also, data from the American Institute of Stress states that 55% of Americans are stressed daily.
Stress could be acute or chronic. Acute stress is short-term and goes away quickly. You feel it after fights with a loved one, when you slam on your car’s brakes, or when you try something new.
On the other hand, chronic stress lasts longer and affects mental health. It manifests from:
- Unhappy marriages
- Financial difficulties
- The death of a loved one
- Getting sacked from work or changing careers
- Having a baby
- Dealing with a severe illness
- Retiring, etc
If you feel stressed for weeks, you are likely experiencing chronic stress. But get a definite diagnosis from a medical practitioner.
Common symptoms of excessive stress are:
- Weight loss or gain
- Upset stomach
- Sexual problems
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Use of alcohol or drugs as a relaxant
- Frequent headaches and pains
- Weight loss or gain
- Stiff jaw or neck
- Lack of energy or focus
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
Like anxiety, your body stays alert during chronic stress even if there is no danger. Over time, this harms your health and may lead to one or more of the following issues:
- Menstrual problems
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Skin problems like acne or eczema
Note that chronic stress may cause depression. Also, if you have an existing health condition, extreme stress could worsen it.
What Treatment Can You Get for Anxiety, Stress, and Depression?
The similarity between anxiety, depression, and stress is that they can be treated. However, unlike physical injuries, no lab test can precisely diagnose stress, depression, and anxiety. Instead, your doctor will ask you specific questions to rule out other health conditions with similar symptoms.
We examine the different treatment options for each of them below.
Treatment for Anxiety
The following are the available treatments for an anxiety disorder:
- Medication: Your doctor would recommend different drugs to help you deal with anxiety. However, discuss the possible side effects of such medications before taking them.
- Psychotherapy: It involves counseling that helps you learn how emotions affect behaviors. A professional mental health specialist listens and talks to you about your feelings. Then they help you understand them and discuss ways to manage your anxiety.
In addition to the treatment, do the following for improved mental health:
- Learn about the condition
- Follow through with the treatment plan
- Eat right and exercise
- Avoid recreational drugs
- Manage negative thoughts
- Surround yourself with your friends and family
Like anxiety, a mental health specialist will recommend medications and psychotherapy. You will likely be placed on anti-depressants. However, note that you may try different drugs before the doctor finds the appropriate one.
Avoid stopping anti-depressants without talking with your doctor. This is because, while these medications are not addictive, users get physically dependent on them. Therefore, when you miss a dose, you may suffer withdrawal-like symptoms. Finally, if you’re suffering from severe depression, your doctor may recommend residential treatment.
Treatment for Stress
Stress treatments address the mind and the body. It includes:
- Meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: This treatment helps you to manage stress effectively. It enables you to reach a relaxed state by focusing on breathing and awareness of the body in the present.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Here, the doctor focuses on pinpointing and questioning negative thoughts that may result in mental health problems like anxiety.
- Acupuncture and Massage: These two treatments are great for reducing stress. Acupuncture also helps to reduce chronic pain and digestive disorders.
Anxiety, stress, and depression can reduce your quality of life if left untreated. Therefore, see a mental health specialist as soon as you experience these signs or see them in a loved one. If you need more information about these conditions, visit our extensive resource page.