Chances are, you're like millions of others who have had these experiences more than once, and some of you may have been plagued with all three at the same time!
While most of us understand the experience of stress, understanding from others begins to fade quickly when it comes to our experiencing anxiety (especially when anxiety becomes severe) or depression. The misunderstanding can be deep, with people you know telling you to just "suck it up" or offering their prescriptions for your woes that are anything but a remedy.
The misunderstanding regarding stress, anxiety, or depression can be like the experience of a man who, in 1835, visited a doctor in Florence, Italy. He was filled with anxiety and exhausted from a lack of sleep. He couldn't eat, and he avoided his friends. The doctor examined him and found that he was in prime physical condition. Concluding that his patient needed to have a good time, the physician told him about a circus in town and its star performer, a clown named Grimaldi. Night after night he had the people rolling in the aisles.
"You must go see him," the doctor advised. "Grimaldi is the world's funniest clown. He'll make you laugh and cure your sadness."
"No," replied the despairing man, "he can't help me. You see, I'm Grimaldi!"
One of the painful aspects of dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression is the misunderstanding others often have regarding what you're experiencing. That's because while many people are familiar with stress, they are less informed about what anxiety and depression are and how they can significantly impact a person's life. So let's get a simple snapshot of this trio of trouble and then we'll review some of the things we can do to deal with these challenges. Since ways of responding to or coping with each one often overlap, I'll provide recommendations at the end of this post.
A story is told of a woman whose little girl was throwing a temper tantrum as the two went up and down the aisles of a busy grocery store. The toddler sat in the cart screaming and flailing about. As she continued shopping, she could be heard calmly muttering, "Don't yell, Susie. Calm down, Susie. Don't get excited, Susie."
A woman passing by commended her, saying, "You certainly are doing a great job trying to calm down your little girl."
The mother responded, "My little girl? Lady, I'm Susie!"
All of us should be able to relate to stress, which simply is a response to the pressures we face in life. Whether it's going out on a first date, planning a wedding, navigating rush hour traffic, or starting a new job, stress is a response we can have in responding to the demands of living life.
Some stress can be good for us. For example, facing the pressure of a deadline can motivate us to become focused and more productive in order to complete a project on time. But sometimes stress can feel so heavy that we feel "overloaded" and wonder if we really can cope.
Too much negative stress can interfere with life to the point it begins to affect our health. Physical symptoms of stress may include headaches, high blood pressure, chest pain and heart palpitations, skin rashes, muscle aches, nervous twitches, and loss of sleep among several possible symptoms..
Since stress is a response to a particular stressor, resolving the demands of the stressor will alleviate the stress, but sometimes it takes time to be able to do that. You can reduce the impact of stress by managing the symptoms with the recommendations at the end of this post.
A bassoon player came up to his conductor, Arturo Toscanini, and nervously said that he could not reach the high E flat. Toscanini just smiled and replied, "Don't worry. There is no E flat in your music tonight." Much of what we're anxious about is like that --- unfounded and unncessary.
But it doesn't feel that way when we're swept up in anxiety!
Understanding the source of anxiety usually isn't as easy as missing a note on a bassoon. Anxiety can be a response to stress, an outcome of irrational thinking, a result of compulsivity, and it is believed by some researchers that anxiety is caused in part by a malfunction of brain chemistry.
Anxiety is usually an adverse effect of stress and a process in which a person becomes scared and apprehensive of what lays ahead. While stress is a response to a specific stressor, anxiety often has no identifiable root, thus anxiety is considered a mental disorder while stress is not. There are several different kinds of specific anxiety disorders ranging from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) to panic attacks. For a diagnosis of anxiety, symptoms must persist for at least six months.
Anxiety is when a person feels something like fear, worry, uneasiness, usually generalized and unfocused as an overreaction to a situation. One person described anxiety as being when a person becomes afraid of fear itself. Arthur Somers Roche wrote, "Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained."
The Mayo Clinic reports, "Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. However, people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Often, anxiety disorders involved repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks)."
The symptoms of anxiety, in addition to feeling worried and apprehensive, can include dizziness, restlessness, fatigue, problems concentrating, tense muscles, trembling, churning stomach, nausea, diarrhea, headache, backache, heart palpitations, numbness or "pins and needles" in extremities, sweating and panic attacks. It's easy to mistake symptoms of anxiety for physical illness and become worried you might be suffering a heart attack or stroke --- a fear which only increases anxiety!
Of the troublesome trio of stress, anxiety, and depression, it is depression that is most misunderstood. Actually, it would be more correct to say that it is depression that we are most ignorant about. That ignorance has fed empty myths and resulted in painful characterizations of those who suffer from depression. Just who is it that could suffer from depression?
One of England's finest preachers was C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892). Frequently during his ministry he was plunged into severe depression, due in part to gout but also for other reasons. In a biography of the "prince of preachers," Arnold Dallimore wrote, "What he suffered in those times of darkness we may not know ... even his desperate calling on God brought no relief. 'There are dungeons,' he said, 'beneath the castles of despair.'"
It isn't just those who haven't struggled with depression who are ignorant of the topic; those who battle depression also often harbor misconceptions about depression. So the arguments between the two is one faction claiming that all depression is a disease. The other faction thinks depressed people just need to think more positively and be active. Both factions are wrong.
For example, persistent or compulsive irrational thinking can result in a mild (or sometimes even a severe) depression; the source for this is our thinking and not a disease (although some argue it still becomes a disease). There are others who suffer depression that clearly has an organic root source, which makes it a disease. Put another way, there are several forms of depressive disorders (i.e., major depression, persistent depressive disorder, psychotic depression, postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder, bi-polar disorder, etc.) so you cannot accurately think of "depression" as being just one type. The Depression Center at the University of Michigan states the following:
"Depression is a real illness that impacts the brain. Anyone suffering from depression will tell you, it's not imaginary or 'all in your head.' Depression is more than just feeling "down." It is a serious illness caused by changes in brain chemistry. Research tells us that other factors contribute to the onset of depression including genetics, changes in hormone levels, certain medical conditions, stress, grief, or difficult life circumstances. Any of these factors alone or in combination can precipitate changes in brain chemistry that lead to depression's many symptoms."
The Depression Center describes the symptoms of depression as follows:
"Depression commonly affects your thoughts, your emotions, your behaviors, and your overall physical health. Here are some of the most common symptoms that point to the presence of depression:
- Angry outbursts
- Loss of interest in friends, family, and favorite activities, including sex.
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble making decisions
- Trouble remembering
- Thoughts of harming yourself
- Delusions and/or hallucinations can also occur in severe cases of depression
- Withdrawing from people
- Substance abuse
- Missing work, school, or other commitments
- Attempts to harm yourself
- Tiredness or lack of energy
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Changes in appetite
- Weight loss
- Weight gain
- Changes in sleep - sleeping too little or too much."
Experiencing a "stressful day" doesn't mean you're also feeling anxious or that you're depressed. But it is possible to be troubled with the entire trio. In 2015, who doesn't occasionally (or often!) feel stressed? And one study revealed that 85 percent of those with major depression were also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder while 35 percent had symptoms of panic disorder.
So let's take a moment to look at what can be done to deal with and overcome stress, anxiety, and depression. Before looking at some common and specific steps you can take, let me state very clearly that research shows rather resoundingly that most people CAN be helped to overcome the negative impact of stress, and even able to defeat anxiety and overcome depression. One of the big problems is that so many people dealing with any or all of the "trio of trouble" just don't get the help they need. GETTING THE HELP YOU NEED COULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE! So please don't hesitate to seek professional help. I can tell you from my own experience as a Christian clinical therapist that it is ROUTINELY POSSIBLE to change your life positively if you are suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, but you have to want to be helped.
COMMON STEPS FOR TREATING THE TRIO OF TROUBLE
There are at least five things you can do that is common to dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression. They are:
Manage your stress - It's your life! You'll need to organize it and manage it better. Learn to be able to say "no" when you need to. Don't stuff your calendar as full as possible.
Exercise - Physical activity is a proven way to reduce stress. Appropriate exercise should become part of your lifestyle, not just occasional jaunts when stress levels spike.
Nutrition - According to Philip Rice, Stress and Health department at Moorhead State University, "Eating right is just as important as managing stress because vulnerability to stress increases with poor diet." It would take multiple blog posts to adequately communicate the significance good nutrition has in the life of anyone battling stress, anxiety, or depression. Work with your physician, or a dietician, or roll up your sleeves and do the research you need to build your knowledge about good nutrition, and then build that into being the daily practice of your life. Place appropriate limits on the intake of alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco, all of which can exacerbate your capacity to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression.
Sleep - A lack of sleep or inadequate sleep patterns can significantly exacerbate your capacity to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. Learn what your sleep needs are, identify your deficiencies, and then make a correction to build the quality and quantity of sleep experience that you need.
Find support - Don't go it alone. It will be easier to battle any of these trio elements with the help and support of others who understand what you're experiencing and are willing to support you as needed.
Now a few quick, specific notes on each element of the trio:
Stress - Again, physical activity is a proven way to help reduce stress, don't make excuses to miss this great way of relieving your stress. Know your limits and stick to them. Make time for recreation. Consider learning relaxation techniques. Massage, or learning muscle relaxation techniques, can be very effective at relieving stress; it's nearly impossible to "feel stressed" when physically relaxed.
Anxiety - Basic treatment for anxiety can include medication, clinical therapy, exercise and relaxation, and nutrition. Anti-depressants are often used to help deal with anxiety in conjunction with clinical counseling. Competent counseling can change your life by equipping you with the knowledge and skills you need to defeat anxiety, so do not hesitate on getting the professional help you need. I have many times recommended the book, "The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook" by Edmund J. Bourne, which has been a very effective source for helping people make a full and lasting recovery over anxiety and anxiety-related issues. Practicing deep abdominal breathing can be an important skill to develop, and biofeedback can potentially be a very effective method of learning to relax and breathe properly.
Depression - Depression is so significant and impacting that a sentence or paragraph is an inappropriate attempt to speak to the treatment for depression. Understand that depression is a very treatable disease and the appropriate treatment can change your life, so get the help you need! There are three major components to most treatment strategies for depression: medication, clinical therapy, and lifestyle changes. It may take time, with some ups and downs, for a treatment plan to work fully, but research shows that the right treatment plan will usually result in helping a person overcome depression.
One of the points I want you to get above everything else is that getting competent professional help usually results in overcoming stress, anxiety, or depression. But in this discussion, do not miss the greatest source for overcoming that is available to anyone and everyone for anything: Jesus Christ. He made you, and He loves and cares about you. He still heals, whether miraculously or through resources such as clinicians and medications. And a committed practice of the spiritual disciplines, in themselves, can tremendously impact the life of a believer who struggles with stress, anxiety, or depression.
You might be struggling with a trio of trouble, but there's a Trinity of power who wants to see you set free from troubles and instead blessed with a peace that passes all understanding.
"I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world," John 16:33