How To Distinguish Depression & Anxiety From Everyday Emotions

everbliss coach Stephanie V. Dobbin, LMFT, teaches us how to better recognize the physical and emotional symptoms of two common mental health conditions--and how to better understand our other uncomfortable feelings, too.
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Image Credit: Veda House

Image Credit: Veda House

As last month's Guest Wellness Editor, Uli Beutter Cohen of everbliss connected us with countless experts to talk about work-life balance, body image and more. Today, she introduces us to yet another mental health maven who just so happens to be an everbliss therapist: Stephanie V. Dobbin, LMFT. Below, Stephanie gives us a run-down on depression and anxiety, teaching us how to distinguish one from the other. She also tells us how to better connect with our innate wisdom so we can recognize when our emotions may have gone from manageable to problematic.

“What are you feeling right now?” I asked a woman who came to see me recently.

“Um. I don’t know. A lot of things?”

“Close your eyes,” I said, “and tell me what’s happening in your body.”

“I have a pit in my stomach. My neck and shoulders are tight. And my thoughts are racing.”

Sometimes emotions are straightforward and obvious. But other times, it’s hard to pin them down and label them. You know you feel something, but it’s not clear what, exactly. 

As it turns out, the woman I was working with was feeling anxious. Anxiety--and its compatriot, depression--are two of the most common reasons people reach out to a therapist or counselor. At least 80 million Americans grapple with anxiety and/or depression each year. 

While we hear so much about these conditions in the media, many people still keep their struggles under wraps. Often, this is due to stigma, but other times, we just don't know how to distinguish anxiety and depression from our everyday emotions. But the longer we wait to sort them out (and ask for help), the harder things get. Relationships become difficult. Work turns more stressful. Life starts to feel out of control.

How can we learn to better recognize and understand anxiety and depression, so we can begin to treat them sooner? First things first: let's define them.

Anxiety includes everything from low-level worry (“Did I just offend my coworker with that joke?”) to a full-on panic (“Get me off of this plane before I pass out!”). It is often linked to thinking about the future and imagining the worst outcomes, causing you to procrastinate or feel a sense of dread that's disproportionate to the tasks at hand. Anxious thoughts often begin with, “What if?” and tend to race through the mind at lightning speed, in endless loops. 

The mind and body work hand-in-hand, and physical symptoms may be the first things you notice when your mind is off-balance. You might know you’re anxious if you feel fidgety, restless, tense or on edge. You may experience physical discomfort like stomach aches, headaches, muscle tension or a racing heart. If you’ve been through a really upsetting experience, you may have nightmares or flashbacks.

Mild anxiety, which comes and goes, is normal and a part of life. It’s part of what drives us and actually helps us make good choices. It becomes a more serious problem when it starts dominating your thoughts, distracting you from important work, or otherwise interrupting your ability to enjoy and do well in your day-to-day life.

Depression, on the other hand, is a heavy sense of sadness, nothingness or numbness. The two defining signs of a depressive episode are a lack of interest in things you used to enjoy and/or feeling down most of the day for more than two weeks in a row. You might feel like you have nothing to look forward to or feel disconnected from yourself and others, more irritable than usual and likely to lash out at people you love.

Physically, you might also notice sudden changes in your sleep patterns or appetite. You might have body aches or pains, and you might have a sudden urge to cry often and over small frustrations.

Depression goes beyond the sadness or disappointment we all experience from time to time. It sticks. It clouds up your brain and casts a negative light on pretty much everything, causing you to lose sight of the good stuff. It may lift on its own when the episode is over, but can return again and again--especially if it’s because of a chemical imbalance, or an underlying problem you’re avoiding.

Even with these standard symptoms in mind, it can sometimes be hard to acknowledge the signs that something is off. But if you feel unlike yourself--confused, maxed out, unhappy or on edge--it's a cue to pay attention. Anxiety and depression are so much easier to nip in the bud if you catch them early, and it's best to bring awareness to any potential issue so you can attempt to resolve it. 

If any of the above descriptions sound vaguely familiar, but you're still struggling to distinguish what's really going on inside your head and body, here are a few ways to connect with yourself and tap into your gut instincts. These steps are meant to help you sort out which emotions might need a bit more attention, whether or not they classify as clinical anxiety or depression.

  • Slow down. Find a quiet spot. Scan your body and notice how you feel physically. Ask yourself what’s bothering you. Grab a piece of paper and jot down whatever comes to mind--no self-editing! Just write. You can always rip up the list later. If you need help calming your thoughts, try a mindfulness app like Stop Breathe Think.
  • Reflect. Take a look at what you wrote. Could you possibly influence or change things, perhaps with some outside guidance? Sometimes we accept situations as unchangeable, when we could make the choice to do something different with a bit of expert assistance. And sometimes we get stuck trying to change things that we can’t.
  • Get guidance. Reaching out for professional help is not only healthy, but also smart, regardless of the intensity of your depression, anxiety or other emotions. Professional knowledge shines light on things that you would gloss over and gives you tools that spark real change. An app like everbliss makes it easy to find and talk to the right therapist or health coach. A handful of sessions are often enough to turn the tide.
  • Schedule time for self-care. Self-care is a bit of an overused buzzword these days, but it’s an important concept nonetheless. What perks you up or calms you down? Exercise, dinner parties, reading…put what you love at the top of your to-do list. When you take care of your wellbeing on a regular basis, it will become easier to see when you're truly feeling off--and to feel motivated to seek a substantial solution as needed.
  • If things seem dark or scary: Sometimes very troubling thoughts can accompany anxiety or depression. If you feel hopeless, desperate, traumatized, or have thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else, please don’t delay in contacting a professional and/or confiding in a loved one. And remember: When anxiety or depression is severe or doesn’t abate with proper self-care and therapy, medication may be a necessary part of getting well. Your therapist or primary care doctor can point you in the right direction.

p.s. One last tip to remember: talking about mental health conditions is a great way to decrease stigma, which serves us all better in the long run.