Depression and anxiety: for so many people, they seem to go hand-in-hand. And the combination packs a double punch to make daily activities seem like a nearly insurmountable chore. Is there a link? And if so, what can you do about it?
Depression and Anxiety: a Paradox or Science?
On first glance, depression and anxiety seem to be total opposites. Depression is just that – a depressive (literally, “pushed down”) effect on the mind, emotions and sometimes, as a side effect, the body. Anxiety, on the other hand, is an overstimulated emotional and central nervous state.
It seems unlikely that both states can exist concurrently. Yet many sufferers of depression report anxiety, and vice versa. If you suffer from these conditions, you may have occasionally thought, “There must be a connection.” If so, you’d be right.
Anxiety: Hyper-Stimulation … and Not in a Good Way
You’d think stimulation would be a good thing. After all, in our high-pressure, multitask oriented world, we may often feel tired and de-energized. A boost of energy can only help – right?
Wrong. Anxiety isn’t just energy; it’s a state of being so stimulated that your body is engaged in the well known fight-or-flight response. Typical symptoms of anxiety include:
- An overall, pervasive feeling of “doom” or that “something bad is about to happen”
- An inability to control thoughts of worry or fear
- Accelerated heart rate
- Sometimes, increased blood pressure
- Tingling in the hands, feet or face
- Dilated pupils
- A cold feeling in the limbs
- Increased heart rate
- Fear of fainting or of “making a scene”
- A sense of panic
- The urge to run or flee from the situation, even if it is non-threatening
- The perception that colors and sounds are more intense
- A feeling of detachment from one’s own body
Depression: the Flip Side of the Coin
Depression can be caused by a neurochemical imbalance, most notably of the brain chemical serotonin, but also sometimes in dopamine, epinephrine or norepinephrine. It can also be situational – in other words, brought on by a traumatic or life-changing event. Paradoxically, depression may also be brought on by what should be a happy event, such as a wedding or birth. All of these events may trigger changes in your brain’s delicate neutransmitter balance.
Typical symptoms include:
- Physical aches and pains with no known medical cause
- Feelings of doom
- An inability to face the day
- Loss of interest in activities that once made the sufferer happy
- Self-imposed isolation
- A feeling of “being all alone” even when in the company of others
- Crying too much, or an inability to cry
- Feelings of suicide
- A generalized sad feeling with no known cause
- Sleeping too much
- Changes in appetite, such as either overeating or a sudden lack of appetite, with no known medical cause
- A feeling that there is no hope/no future for the sufferer
- A feeling that loved ones may be better off without the sufferer in their lives
NOTE: If you suffer ANY of the above symptoms, seek medical help immediately. If your doctor can not see you, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. You do NOT have to be actively suicidal to utilize this resource.
What Science is Learning About Anxiety and Depression
As different as these two conditions seem to be, the medical community is beginning to note that the two often happen together. Generally, they will alternate – anxious one moment or day, depressed the next – but sometimes the feelings can occur at the same time. For example, even in the midst of a full-blown panic attack, you may feel oddly sluggish, detached and overwhelmingly sad.
What science is discovering is that while behaviorally and symptomatically the two conditions may seem to be opposites, they are essentially are two sides to the same coin. Both relate to inconsistencies in the emotions and/or the brain and an inability to regulate the central nervous system. These reactions can cause the individual to anticipate further suffering, which increases the negative effects from a psychological level.
The reason one state may lead to another (and why they may seem to go back and forth in the same sufferer) may be that that chemically, the brain will attempt to correct an underproduction of hormones and neurochemicals causing the current state to occur.
So if you have been in a depressed state for some time, your body may overproduce the stimulating chemicals adrenaline and epinephrine. And if you’ve been panicked for too long, your body will essentially “shut down” to correct the issue. The body then attempts to correct the new condition, and the cycle continues.
Anxiety Can Lead to Depression
Another definite link is that being anxious, particularly having panic attacks, can lead to an emotional sense of depression which can itself affect brain chemicals. Living in a constant state of anxiety and suffering panic attacks can make the individual feel there is no hope for ever getting better and that life is generally terrifying. This is a direct route to long-term depression.
What to Do About It
See your doctor.
Don’t suffer in silence. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, some 40 million adults in the U.S. suffer from anxiety, and nearly half of those suffer from depression as well. You may feel alone, but you’re not. Like you, most people are simply hiding their symptoms.
You do not necessarily have to see a psychiatrist (though these doctors will generally have a better, more up-to-date grasp of the two conditions). If you’re more comfortable visiting your general practitioner or even a specialist (such as an OB/gyn), make an appointment with him or her. Any medical doctor can prescribe anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications if these are warranted.
Find a community support group
You may also wish to look up depression and anxiety groups in your area. Like-minded individuals who have been through what you’re going through can be a great resource. They may be able to offer non-pharmaceutical tips and methods for decreasing panic while it’s happening. Along with that, some self-help kits can also alleviate your symptoms.
In fact, many individuals for whom psychiatric or medical therapy has not worked say that simple steps, such as counting slowly, seeing the “bigger picture” and understanding the science behind their symptoms has worked to ease them.
There’s no time to lose – your life is precious. Stop suffering in silence and start living today. The more you know about these conditions, the more you can do about them. Take that first small step of many; they all add up to a brighter future and a happier, panic-free you.