“In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” ~Albert Camus
About ten years ago, I stopped sleeping. It started on a vacation. The first night in this lovely beach rental, I couldn't fall asleep and stayed wide awake all night. Of course I was a mess the next day, and the following night I was panicky that I wouldn't be able to fall asleep again.
This was the start of a spiral of insomnia, that led to anxiety about not sleeping, that led to total exhaustion, that led to strange physical symptoms, that caused more anxiety and worry. I had no idea what was wrong. I thought it might be hormones. I thought I was dying. I feared I might never feel normal again. I went to my internist, my gynecologist, and a sleep specialist.
Finally, someone said to me, “I think you might be depressed. You better do something before you come completely unglued.” Completely unglued?! Depressed? I didn't feel depressed. I felt exhausted, achy, frightened and anxious. But I didn't feel sad. In fact, I wanted to feel better, to be happy and energetic. I was wired and tired, like I had an intravenous feeding tube serving me high test espressos 24-7. But depressed? No way.
The idea that depression would manifest as a constant feeling of fight or flight never occurred to me. I thought depression meant that you were sad, hopeless, lethargic, slept too much. But I subsequently learned that depression and anxiety are fraternal twins, and they can waltz into your life wearing a myriad of costumes. If you don't know how to recognize the symptoms, you might come unglued before you know what's happening.
So how do you know if it's just temporary mood changes or a bad mood that will pass?
How do you know if you are possibly sinking into something that is really debilitating?
In the same way you learned the symptoms of a heart attack or cancer, you need to recognize the symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders. Left untreated, these two maladies can be as dangerous as a heart attack. It's also important to know if you might be at risk for depression.
Fortunately, there are preventative actions you can take to reduce the possibility of depression and anxiety sneaking up on you. The first action is arming yourself with knowledge.
Although they have different symptoms, depression and anxiety are linked. In fact, in one study, 85% of those with a major depression also experienced generalized anxiety disorder. They are both believed to be caused in part by a malfunction of brain chemistry. Here are some of the symptoms to watch out for.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of depression may include the following:
- difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- fatigue and decreased energy
- feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
- feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
- insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- irritability, restlessness
- loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
- overeating or appetite loss
- persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
- persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
- thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
General anxiety disorder affects the way a person thinks, but the anxiety can lead to physical symptoms, as well. Symptoms can include:
- Excessive, ongoing worry and tension
- An unrealistic view of problems
- Restlessness or a feeling of being “edgy”
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty concentrating
- The need to go to the bathroom frequently
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Being easily startled
Anxiety can also manifest as a panic disorder leading to panic attacks, which often last about 10 minutes. The symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Pounding heart or chest pain
- Intense feeling of terror
- Sensation of choking or smothering
- Dizziness or feeling faint
- Trembling or shaking
- Nausea or stomachache
- Tingling or numbness in the fingers and toes
- Chills or hot flashes
- A fear that you are losing control or are about to die
- Persistent fear of future panic attacks.
- Avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred.
Depression and anxiety can be caused by genetics, abuse or trauma, major life changes, serious illness, personal problems, and even some medications. It's good to know if you are at risk, but it's even better to change your life today in ways that can help protect you from experiencing an episode of depression or anxiety.
Here are some strategies to provide a booster shot of protection to keep you mentally and emotionally healthy:
Have A Support Network
Whether it's a network of trustworthy friends, a counselor or your mom, have people in your life with whom you can share your joys and sorrows. People who care for you unconditionally. It's good to have wise mentors who are older, as well as peers with whom you can discuss problems or just share a laugh. Strong personal connections boost your mood and self-esteem.
Treat and Heal Trauma
If you've had or are experiencing trauma or serious emotional pain, find a professional counselor to work with on these issues. If you are holding a secret or emotional burden, a mental health professional has heard it all and is trained to help you process your emotions and heal them — before they emerge as a full-blown depression or anxiety disorder.
Be Productive and Engaged In Life
Step away from the television. Drop the remote. Walk away from the internet. If you work, great — work with enthusiasm. If not, volunteer somewhere. Go out with friends. Develop a hobby. Stay busy and engaged with something you find fun and interesting. Whatever you do, don't sit around and dwell on negative thoughts. Worry and over-thinking just produces more of the same.
Recognize Stress and Kick It In The Butt
If you are working too much, in a bad relationship, overwhelmed by a problem, feeling out-of-control, acknowledge that you are stressed and do something about it. Persistent stress is a forerunner to anxiety and/or depression. Take the time to develop strategies to release the pressure valve.
Move Your Body
Regular and vigorous exercise boosts your mood by releasing endorphins in your brain. Those endorphins make you feel so good — like you've taken a happy pill. But you haven't, and you get the added benefit of losing weight and getting fit.
Try the Anti-Depression Diet
There are certain foods that can support your body and mind in preventing depression and anxiety. Check out this article on a diet that can help reduce your risk.
Raise Your Serotonin Levels Naturally
Serotonin is a hormone that is found naturally in the human brain. It greatly influences an overall sense of well-being. It also helps to regulate moods, tempers anxiety, and relieves depression. It is credited with being a natural sleep aid. Here are some great ways to boost your own serotonin without drugs.
If you recognize yourself in any of the symptoms above, please don't dismiss them or think you should be able to handle them on your own. If the symptoms last longer than a week or so, go to your doctor and discuss what's going on with you. As scary or embarrassing as it might feel, taking this action to get diagnosed and treated is a bold and fearless thing to do. Do it before you come completely unglued.