By Dr. Mehri Moore
According to Mental Health America, more than 16 million Americans experience some sort of depressive disorder every year, and more than 42 million experience an anxiety disorder. These episodes vary greatly in terms of duration, cause, and severity, and such diversity can make it difficult determine – especially on one’s own – how severe one’s condition is and when to access the appropriate treatment. Like most mental illnesses, anxiety and depression manifest across a spectrum, not as an on/off duality, and while seeking professional assistance is often an essential part of recovery, self-assessment also plays a critical role in determining where on the spectrums you sit. Below are three indicators of anxiety and/or depression as well as some tips for determining when you should consider locating a professional with whom you are comfortable.
Overwhelming, Persistent Panic
It can be challenging to differentiate ordinary fear from clinical anxiety, especially if you’ve never experienced or diagnosed the latter. Fear – an evolutionary mechanism present in nearly every human being – is an in-the-moment reaction to some defined threat. When we encounter a harmful or potentially harmful stimulus, we feel fear, and as soon as the stimulus retreats, our fear subsides; this is a normal human process. Conversely, anxiety is a ruminative, forward-looking concern that fixates on the worst-case scenario, even in situations where there is no discernible threat or where the sufferer has no control over an outcome. Severe anxiety feels like ongoing, ex nihilo panic or despair and typically isn’t assuaged by the removal of stimuli.
If you begin to experience persistent, seemingly inexplicable fear or dread, try forcing a change of stimuli and environment. Disconnect from digital stressors – turn off the television, log off social media, power down cell phones – go for a walk or engage in some other form of exercise, and spend time with a close friend or family member. If your feelings abate, you likely have what may be mild anxiety under control, although – and this is important – consulting a professional about low-intensity treatment like weekly outpatient therapy is never a bad idea. If basic lifestyle adjustments do not make a noticeable impact on your negative feelings, your best course of action probably involves some form of sustained professional assistance.
Disconnect from or Disregard for Present Reality
As hinted at above, individuals struggling with anxiety often have little regard for the limits of their own agency. This can mean obsessing over current goings-on over which you have no control, but more often than not it manifests as excessive worry about the past or, especially, the future. The negative thoughts and feelings that frequently accompany anxiety pretend to offer shelter from all impending – and ambiguous – harms through the perpetuation of maladaptive behaviors. Existential paralysis, difficulty concentrating, and withdrawal from society are all conditions that an overly anxious mind insinuates will shield an individual from all harms to come, despite the objective reality that life always involves a certain amount of risk.
A concerted effort to be mindful and practice “fact-checking” can help ease minor instances of anxiety. When an individual with anxiety confronts a potentially fraught set of circumstances, they automatically gravitate toward the worst-case scenario. If possible, try taking a few steps back and even literally writing down the verifiable facts of the perceived crisis. Assessing a situation for what it really is, as opposed to how awful it could become, is a key first step in lowering one’s anxiety level. If you are unable to even consider situations from any perspective other than your default (likely despairing or panicked) one, visiting a mental health professional might be the most effective way to help you manage your anxiety.
Difficulty Adjusting to Changing Circumstances
There are numerous types of depression, each with a unique set of signs and symptoms, but what many people don’t realize is that certain variations of depression can be triggered by and parallel major life events. The death of a loved one – or any other occurrence that might elicit grief – can trigger “complicated grief,” a bout of depression that exceeds the scope of a “normal” grieving process. Conversely, bringing a child into the world is undoubtedly a joyous occasion, but studies estimate that 10-15% of new mothers experience postpartum depression, the onset of which isn’t until about four weeks after childbirth. Finally, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can bring about depressive tendencies during winter months when sunlight is scarcer.
Though the indicators for each of these situational depressions vary, the salient point is that depression often interweaves itself with our reactions to common life events. Grieving the loss of a loved one is as natural and healthy as preferring summer to winter, but these typical emotional cycles can be scaled to atypical magnitudes by any number of depressive disorders. Unfortunately, even within “normal” parameters, people deal with death, birth, and the passage of time in myriad ways, complicating the task of determining whether one’s own coping mechanisms are within a healthy range. Talking to other people who are experiencing or have experienced what you are going through is a good start, but, as always, engaging the services of a professional – even if only for an introductory consultation – can provide much-needed clarity and structure during times of personal struggle.
If upon honest self-assessment you feel compelled to seek some sort of mental health care, rest assured that there are many programs available to you, and many care professionals eager to tailor support to your specific needs. At THIRA Health, we offer weekly individual and group therapy, an Intensive Outpatient Program, and a pioneering Partial Hospitalization Program, and we are dedicated to providing our patients with customized, high-quality care that can guide you down the road to recovery.