“I feel sad.”
I don’t know how many times that sentence has tumbled from between my lips with the heavy sigh that preceded it. Always tired and always sad.
Sometimes I don’t think people actually want to know if other people are “okay.” But when I say I’m sad, people usually respond along the lines of “Aw, why? Let’s go get coffee and you can tell me all about it.”
And while that might seem like a positive interaction, it usually goes on with a list of things that are on my mind, and the other person singling out one or two and going on about how they feel the same way and gosh, we’re all just so stressed these days. It trivializes my problems and gives them something to talk about.
When most people think of sadness, the first thing to come to mind might be words such as “unhappy” and “sorrow” or the Disney Pixar character by the same name. In fact, when you search “sadness” on Google, the “Inside Out” character is the first image result.
But when I think of “sad,” it’s more like S.A.D.: stressed, anxious and depressed. And while you can have all three at the same time, they are not the same thing and shouldn’t be treated as such.
Everyone feels stress. Yes, that’s in present tense. Whether you’re studying for an exam or you’re running late to work, you’ve probably felt a tinge of stress at some point today.
In an open survey I conducted last week, 100 percent of respondents said they felt stressed, and 54 percent said their stress level on average was a 3 on a scale from 1 (bearable) to 5 (unbearable).
But what causes our stress and what can we do to change that?
Let’s first define stress. (Cue internal laughter.)
A looming cloud that I ignore.”
-Molly, 19, defining stress
There’s no real way to define the things that bring strain to our daily lives. Stress.org says one common definition is “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” In layman’s terms, it’s a feeling people have when they feel they think they are unable to keep up with the daily ebb and flow. When asked what caused their stress, work, school, money and the future were common answers from my survey participants.
A stimulus; whether it be physical, social, or mental that forces a negative reaction, usually resulting in physical and mental exhaustion, for a prolonged period of time.”
-Tyler, 23, defining stress
Not all stress is bad. Stress in serious situations that will trigger the body’s fight or flight response is helpful in keeping people in a clear state of mind while enduring the stress. But remember that stress is supposed to be temporary.
When the stress becomes recurring—the sweaty palms, the hammer-like beat of your heart—when that becomes a commonality, then it’s probably something more. Which brings us to our next question: what is anxiety?
To put it simply, anxiety is a reaction to stress. But it’s important here to define the line between occasional nervousness and anxiety as a disorder.
Overthinking, worrying, being constantly fixated on some uncertainty that’s eating away at you.”
-Austin, 23, defining anxiety
Growing up, I watched my mom struggle, holding multiple jobs, selling expensive items and moving around frequently to put me through school. I watched her cry when the water streaming from our tap wouldn’t warm up and I watched my step dad get a second and third job to cover the month’s expenses. That was normal for me. Living in a high-stress environment was normal, and I used to think feeling stressed was indicative of how successful you are.
One form of anxiety I have is high-functioning anxiety.
If you know me, you know I love staying busy. I tend to base my worth on my career and projects, so I often bite off more than I can chew. I was particularly guilty of this in college, to the point where one professor told me I do too much and needed to focus on my classwork. But the problem with high-functioning anxiety is that the signs are easily shrugged off.
What might seem like stereotypical “perfectionist” behavior is actually unhealthy obsession, panic and loss of sleep over getting everything on my to-do list done on time (despite the fact that I keep adding to it). I don’t want to let people down, so I do way more than I have to. I stress myself out, and then I become anxious, exuding small ticks (like scratching at my scalp) that I’ve been doing since grade school. And the worst part is believing there’s nothing wrong with me because I’m still “functioning.”
Anxiety can take multiple forms because it is a response to the various kinds of stress we feel. Different kinds of stress trigger different ways people react, and sometimes those reactions hinder our day-to-day life. It becomes a struggle to do things we normally could or would because our brains are too focused on what’s going wrong.
My mind, honestly. I have anxiety about things that are totally manageable, but to me they feel overwhelming.”
-Samantha, 20, on what causes anxiety
When anxiety affects your daily life, it is a problem. There are multiple kinds of anxiety; some of the more commonly known types are:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety and Agoraphobia
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Just because your anxiety looks or feels different from someone else’s doesn’t negate the seriousness of it.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 6.8 million Americans are affected by Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which “is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things.”
Ninety-five percent of my survey respondents said they had felt anxious at some time in their lives, and 54 percent rated their anxiety on an average day as a 4. Everyone is fighting a battle; sometimes we can’t always see it.
Stressed is not Depressed
Spoken word artist Sabrina Benaim presented a piece called “Explaining my Depression to my Mother,” in which she’s tries explaining her depression in ways her mom can understand and then says she has anxiety, and her mother asks when anxiety came into the mix.
Benaim responds, “Anxiety is the cousin visiting from out of town that Depression felt obligated to bring to the party. Mom, I am the party, only I am a party I don’t want to be at.”
So far, we have learned that stress is a temporary feeling and anxiety, the disorder, is a prolonged reaction to certain stressors. And according to Benaim, anxiety and depression are cousins. And she’s not wrong.
The ADAA says half of people who are diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
They are essentially cousins. You really can’t have one without the other.”
-Adrian, 21, on S.A.D.
While stress, anxiety and depression are related, they are not the same thing. Often, anxiety can be a symptom of depression and vice versa.
There are multiple types of depression, but three main types are:
Major Depression: experiencing symptoms (i.e.: hopelessness, worthlessness, sadness) for more than two weeks. Can be gradual or sudden and can occur once or many times throughout a person’s life.
Persistent Depressive Disorder: less severe than major depression but involves the same symptoms and lasts for at least two years.
Bipolar Disorder: experiencing extreme mood shifts from euphoric highs to depressive lows.
Starting the day at the bottom of the ocean, trying to swim toward the surface for air, but the harder I swim, the more I get pulled down”
-Blythe, 23, defining depression
Depression is a difficult illness to battle. You lose interest in the things that once brought you joy, getting out of bed in the morning drains you before you can even stand up, and sometimes, thoughts of death and suicide are at the forefront of your mind. It can be directly related to a traumatic event or a chemical imbalance in the brain.
People experience depression differently and can have a different combination of symptoms. But depression is treatable, whether you seek out therapy from a psychologist, who listens and provides insight, or a psychiatrist, who is authorized to provide prescription drugs.
In 2015, the National Institute of Mental Health reported nearly 16.1 million adults over the age of 18 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, and the majority of respondents were between the ages of 18 and 25.
In my survey, 88 percent of respondents said they had experienced depression, and 30 percent rated their depression as a 5.
While it may seem like stress is the new norm and if you don’t feel stressed, you’re not “doing life” properly, high levels of stress negatively affects your mind and body. And coupled with anxiety and depression, life can start to feel like it’s too much.
If you or someone you know is experiencing high levels of anxiety or symptoms of depression, the ADAA has compiled a list of resources, from finding therapists to ways you can help others, to find the best treatment for you. If you are a college student, check with your on-campus health center for mental health services. If you are under the age of 18, please talk to a parent or trusted adult to help you.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-799-4889 for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and 1-888-628-9454 para Español). All calls are free and confidential. You can chat live at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Basically, mental illness knows no race, sex or gender. It does what it wants and it feeds off stressors.”
Talking openly about these topics shouldn’t be taboo. Next week, I want to talk about coping methods and ways to alleviate stress and anxiety. If you have any tips you’d like to share, or if you’re interested in sharing your story, please submit your query below.
Take care of yourselves this week.