Sadly, most of us have experienced or know someone dear to us who may be experiencing depression and/or anxiety. In order to support ourselves and the people around us, it can be helpful to have an understanding of what depression and anxiety actually is.
What is anxiety?
According to the Australian Psychological Society, anxiety is an “uncomfortable feeling of fear or impending disaster and reflects the thoughts and bodily reactions a person has when they are presented with an event or situation that they cannot manage or undertake successfully”. Everyone, at some point in their life, will experience a form of mild anxiety, whether it is feeling anxious or worried just before sitting an exam, going for a job interview, or perhaps feeling anxious before playing a sports match. In fact, this sort of anxiety, although slightly unpleasant, is normal and can enhance performance and motivation. However, some people experience intense feelings of anxiety or worry that are overwhelming and interfere with their normal functioning. These intense feelings can be so debilitating that the people, who are affected, are no longer able to perform their basic day-to-day activities (such as going to work, cooking, cleaning, shopping, playing with the kids, paying bills, or socialising).
What is depression?
Depression has been described by the Australian Psychological Society as intense feelings of low mood accompanied by other symptoms that are “pervasive and long-lasting, are distressing to the person, and interfere with their day-to-day life and relationships.” Similar to anxiety, most people at some point will experience some sadness or low mood. However, when symptoms persist and start to interfere with work or from performing our day-to-day activities, or even from connecting with the people we care about, then it may be our body signaling to us that something more serious is going on.
What are the symptoms of anxiety and depression?
The experience of anxiety and/or depression is unique to each person. However, people who experience anxiety and/or depression typically experience a combination of symptoms including:
Typical Symptoms of Anxiety
Excessive fear (emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat)
Excessive anxiety (anticipation of future threat)
Feelings of overwhelm
Dizziness or feeling faint
Nausea or upset stomach
Difficulty concentrating or going blank
Avoidance of people, places or things that may create anxiety or fear
Typical Symptoms of Depression
Low mood / feelings of sadness
Feeling unmotivated or that everything is an effort
Reduced sense of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities
Changes in appetite and/or weight
Drained of energy or restlessness
Sleep disturbance / insomnia
Difficulties concentrating or making decisions
Feelings of worthlessness
“Things aren’t going to get better”.
“Life is not worth living anymore”.
“I can’t cope”.
Where do anxiety and depression come from?
All emotions have a purpose, even the ones that feel uncomfortable. From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety is what kept our ancestors alive and allowed us to continue our species. For example, the basic needs of a hunter/gatherer were food, water and shelter. However, an even greater priority was to not get killed by a sabre-toothed tiger! Therefore, hunter/gatherers needed to be on alert for any potential threat or danger at all times to safeguard survival. Those that were on alert were typically the ones who survived and passed that tendency to worry onto the next generations.
Today, there is an absence of immediate threat. In other words, it is unlikely that we will see a wild tiger walking down the street. However, we have many “perceived” dangers such as debts, bills, rejection, loss, illness, germs, and embarrassment. Furthermore, because our mind is so creative, it has developed this incredible ability to invent things to worry about that will probably never actually happen.
Like anxiety, depression too has an evolutionary basis. For example, sadness can be adaptive as it may communicate to others that we have experienced a loss, and/or need company, comfort and support. Furthermore, when we look at emotions, such as sadness, from an evolutionary perspective, being part of a group or tribe (and therefore not being rejected or left behind by your tribe) was helpful as it meant we were protected from danger, and therefore more likely to survive. In order to ensure our tribe would not reject us or leave us behind, we needed to continuously compare ourselves to other members of our tribe to ensure we were strong enough, fit enough, smart enough etc. From this perspective, you can see why it is that we are constantly comparing ourselves to others today and evaluating whether or not we are “good enough”. However, today, we are exposed to many more people (e.g., through television, magazines, social media etc.) who appear better than us. Unfortunately, this leaves us feeling empty, disappointed, unsatisfied, hurt and/or depressed.
There is no single cause of anxiety or depression, they are multifactorial, and do not tend to develop overnight.
What causes anxiety and/or depression?
There is no single cause of anxiety or depression, they are multifactorial, and do not tend to develop overnight. However, there are many factors, which may increase your chances of developing an anxiety or mood disorder. These include a family history of anxiety or depression, certain personality styles (e.g., people who have a tendency to be timid, people with low self-esteem, perfectionism, people who have a reduced capacity to cope, neuroticism), on-going stressful experiences (e.g., family separation, abuse, neglect, bullying, emotional shock following trauma, loss, and changes in living arrangements), physical/medical health conditions (e.g., diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypothyroidism, other autoimmune conditions), thinking styles (e.g., people who need to have control over everything), behavioural styles (e.g., people who use avoidance as a coping strategy), nutrient deficiencies, poor gut health, and blood sugar or hormonal imbalances.