Depression and Anxiety 101


Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can actually be beneficial in some situations. For some people, however, anxiety can become excessive. Anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that cause people to feel excessively frightened, distressed, or uneasy during situations in which most other people would not experience these same feelings. There are a wide variety of anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder to name a few. Collectively, they are among the most common mental disorders experienced by Americans. 

Panic Disorder

Characterized by "panic attacks," panic disorder results in sudden feelings of terror that can strike repeatedly and sometimes without warning. Physical symptoms of a panic attack include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, upset stomach, feelings of being disconnected and fear of dying. It may feel like having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time, and many people with panic disorder worry about and dread the possibility of having another attack. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

All of us worry about things like health, money, or family problems. But people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are extremely worried about these and many other things, even when there is little or no reason to worry about them. This is a worrying that lasts for at least six months, makes it difficult to concentrate and to carry out routine activities, and happens for many hours each day in some people. Some people with this disorder anticipate the worst and often experience physical symptoms of fatigue, tension, headaches and nausea due to the severity of their anxiety. 


Although studies suggest that people are more likely to have an anxiety disorder if their parents have anxiety disorders, it has not been shown whether biology or environment plays the greater role in the development of these disorders. Some anxiety disorders can also be caused by medical illnesses. Other anxiety disorders can be caused by brain injury. 


Effective treatments for anxiety disorders include psychotherapy, aerobic exercise and medications. Some psychotherapy techniques known as behavioral therapies or cognitive behavioral therapies are most useful in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Relaxation techniques including mindfulness and meditation are also useful for people with anxiety disorders to decrease their stress and to help them cope with severe worrying. In most cases, a combination of psychotherapy and medications is most beneficial for people with severe anxiety disorders. 


Major depression is a mood state that goes well beyond temporarily feeling sad or blue. It is a serious medical illness that affects one's thoughts, feelings, behavior, mood and physical health. Some individuals may only have one episode of depression in a lifetime, but often people have recurrent episodes. More than one-half of people who experience a first episode of depression will have at least one other episode during his/her lifetime. Some people may have several episodes in the course of a year, and others may have ongoing symptoms. 

Major Depression

Major depression is also known as clinical depression, major depressive illness, major affective disorder and unipolar mood disorder. Major depression: severe symptoms that interfere with your ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life. An episode can occur only once in a person's lifetime, but more often, a person has several episodes. 


Most likely, depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain. Some types of depression tend to run in families. However, depression can occur in people without family histories of depression too. In addition, trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation may trigger a depressive episode. Other depressive episodes may occur with or without an obvious trigger. 


People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness. Signs and symptoms include persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, irritability, restlessness, fatigue and decreased energy, difficulty concentrating, remembering details, making decisions, insomnia, early-morning wakefulness or excessive sleeping, overeating or appetite loss, aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment. 


Although depression can be a devastating illness, it often responds to treatment. The key is to get a specific evaluation and a treatment plan. Today, there are a variety of treatment options available for depression. There are three well-established types of treatment: medications, psychotherapy and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In addition, many people like to manage their illness through alternative therapies or holistic approaches, such as acupuncture, meditation, and nutrition. These treatments may be used alone or in combination. *All information is from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health)