You hear the terms ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ a lot these days. Awareness has increased, the stigma around suffering with mental illness disorders has reduced slightly as it seems more commonplace, particularly among young people who seem to use the terms as if they are fashionable. This makes some ask the questions ‘are you really anxious, or just a bit worried?’, or ’are you really depressed, or just feeling a bit sad?’. It depends on its severity and persistence. With all the challenges we face as a modern society, things are affecting mental health such as the pandemic, the war on the Ukraine by Russia, and the economic crises we are all now facing.
But what is the difference between anxiety and depression? To put it in its most simple way, depression may be described as a persistent and prolonged mood disorder that causes sadness and a loss of interest, and anxiety is the mind and bodies reaction to stressful or dangerous situations. And if you suffer from anxiety enough, it can of course cause depression.
What is anxiety? Picture the dawn of man, of cave person times, where a sabre-toothed tiger confronts you. On seeing it your brain would instantly recognise it as a danger, which would send signals to your body and alert it to prepare for a fight, for flight, or to freeze. This can bring about a number of physical reactions, such as a surge of adrenaline in the body to get ready to fight or run, which can cause you to shake, your heart to race, your breathing to increase, perspiration to cool you down, or your tummy may feel very upset as your body is urging you empty itself and get ready for fight or flight. Sometimes you may get completely overwhelmed by the situation and become paralysed with fear. Do these symptoms sound familiar if you suffer from anxiety? Even though these days we aren’t usually confronted by situations of a life-threatening nature like a sabre-toothed tiger, when our brain perceives something as a danger, threat or stressful situation, our bodies still react in the same way. Whereas once it was an awesomely efficient way of protecting our lives, these days those reactions prove to be more troublesome than useful, unless we are faced with a life-threatening situation of course, which is rare.
How do we deal with anxiety? In the moment we can do breathing exercises to slow down our breathing and heart rate – breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, and out for 7 seconds, and repeat until everything (our breathing and heart rate) has slowed down. We can sit in a chair, take our shoes off, and firmly plant our feet onto the ground, literally giving ourselves a sense of ‘grounding’. We can sit in a quiet room and pick something we can see, describe it in 3 ways, pick something we can feel, describe it in 3 ways, and close our eyes and pick something we can hear, and describe it in 3 ways, which helps us focus on the here and now. If we focus on the here and now, where we realise that we are in no danger, we are safe, and we are okay - this helps to remove the feeling of threat or danger. These exercises should be repeated regularly while the going is good, so then when we are in a situation where our anxiety is raised, we are able to do these exercises more easily and eventually they become more natural to us.
CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is also good for anyone dealing with anxiety. They may experience cognitive distortions that change their thoughts from rational ones to irrational ones, in an ever-descending spiral that feeds the fear. The first step is recognising these behaviours, then track the initial thought, how it produces a feeling, and then the action that it results in, and every time you go around this cycle notice how it grows into a bigger or more negative problem. The trick is to slightly change that initial thought, to something slightly more positive, little by little, until you have broken the cycle. It takes practice and a little gentle exposure to the things that cause the anxiety.
Here's a list of tips to help you control and reduce anxiety, try these when you're feeling anxious or stressed: -
Take some time-out. Practice yoga, listen to music, meditate, get a massage, or learn relaxation techniques. Stepping back from the problem helps clear your head.
Eat well-balanced meals. Do not skip any meals. Keep healthy, energy-boosting snacks on hand.
Limit alcohol and caffeine, which can aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks.
Get enough sleep. When stressed, your body needs additional sleep and rest.
Exercise daily to help you feel good and maintain your health, just a gentle walk will do.
Take deep breaths. Inhale and exhale slowly.
Count to 10 slowly. Repeat, and count to 20 if necessary.
Do your best, instead of aiming for perfection, which isn't possible. Be proud of however close you get.
Accept that you cannot control everything. Put your stress in perspective: Is it really as bad as you think?
Welcome humour. A good laugh goes a long way.
Try to maintain a positive attitude. Make an effort to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
Get involved. Volunteer or find another way to be active in your community, which creates a support network and gives you a break from everyday stress.
Learn what triggers your anxiety. Is it work, family, school, or something else you can identify? Write in a journal when you’re feeling stressed or anxious and look for a pattern.
Talk to someone. Tell friends and family you’re feeling overwhelmed and let them know how they can help you. Talk to your GP or a therapist for professional help.