The stigma surrounding mental health issues in this country continues to be detrimental to all those who suffer from or know someone who suffers from a mental illness. The two most common mental illnesses experienced in the United States -- anxiety disorder and depression -- are steeped in misunderstandings and misconceptions that give birth to that stigma. If we are to battle that stigma, those misconceptions surrounding both anxiety and depression must be debunked and replaced with factual and experiential truth. When we get something as destabilizing as mental illness wrong, we are hindered from helping those we love who struggle with it and identifying its symptoms in ourselves.
While it is true that a prolonged and deep sense of sadness is one symptom of depression, it is certainly not synonymous with the disorder. Usually sadness is brought about by particular life events or memories and does not continue for disproportionate periods of time. Conversely, depression is a chronic condition that produces a sadness which doesn’t simply come and go. Likewise, sadness is far from the only negative emotion brought on by depression. Others include anxiousness, hopelessness, apathy, and emptiness.
Traumatic and difficult life events often do prompt depressive episodes but those events are not the only cause for a depressive disorder. Grief occurs for a period of time following a divorce or a death of a loved one; however, depressed individuals find that their symptoms last longer and reoccur over a prolonged period.
Even though it’s symptoms may be more difficult to recognize and it doesn’t have a simple medical treatment, depression is a serious medical condition. Individuals with depressive disorders have physical differences in their brains because of neurotransmitter and hormone imbalances.
Since depression manifests diversely in each person who experiences it, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Antidepressants are a common treatment chosen by many doctors and psychiatrists but they are not the only option available. Psychotherapy or a combination of therapy and medication are options as well. Many medical professionals consider medication and therapy administered simultaneously to be the most effective treatment.
As mentioned above, treatment is customized for each individual depending on their symptoms and biological or environmental causes. Some individuals use medication for short-term stabilization. Others stay with a consistently medicated schedule over the course of their lives. While many opt for no medication whatsoever. An estimated 40% of those dealing with depression find psychotherapy more effective than medication.
The generalized stereotype that all individuals with an anxiety disorder are constantly fearful could not be farther from the truth. Fear is a component of anxiety but it is not the only one. Bill Knaus describes it very differently in Psychology Today by claiming that “recurring anxieties and fears can feel like walls on each side of a trail painted with murals of regrets.”
In reality, anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health issues in the United States. Approximately 40 million American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder every year, which equates to around 18% of us. People manifest anxiety is such diverse ways that it is easy to assume others are unaffected.
Many believe that anxiety is not worth assessing, diagnosing, or treating. This is caused by our belittling of the disorder. It’s enormously important not to leave anxiety untreated as it increases the risk of depression.
This is a particularly dangerous misconception as it can create a dependency on alcohol, a depressant, and perhaps leading to dependency on other substances as well. Because of the simple fact that it can soothe someone in the moment of anxiety means that it can become an addiction that is relied upon every time anxiety is felt. Self-medicating with alcohol or other substances can reinforce anxiety overall and cause depressive symptoms.
On the contrary, some of the dominant symptoms of anxiety are physical. If you experience them, they are a sign that you are dealing with an actual disorder rather than a normal amount of nerves. The physical symptoms occur so often that they are frequently mistaken for conditions like tachycardia, heart problems, asthma, and ulcers. Some of these symptoms include, but aren’t limited to, dizziness, muscle tension, nausea, trouble breathing, heart palpitations, and hyperventilation.
Treatment for depression and/or anxiety ought to be tailored to each individual, just as a treatment for any other illness would be. Psychotherapy and medication are among the most commonly prescribed treatments for anxiety and depressive disorders. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a particular method of psychotherapy that teaches patients with both anxiety and depression how to manage their fears, including their anxieties and depressive symptoms, by figuring out what is actually causing them other than biological imbalances. Additionally, CBT works to replace those thought patterns which are harmful and unproductive with more positive and fruitful ones.
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