Anxiety Vs. Depression: What’s The Difference?

Reviewed by Dawn Brown, LPC, NCC

Published 01/08/2021

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health issues that people struggle with, and they can also often be found alongside each other. Depression and anxiety, although they are closely affiliated at times, are quite different from one another. In this article, you will learn about the signs and symptoms that define the difference between anxiety and depression, as well as symptoms that they have in common.

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What Is Anxiety?

First, discussing the differences between depression and anxiety, let’s go over what anxiety is and everything it entails.

In general, anxiety is a state of mind that can be described as having the sensation of fear, dread, or simply anxiousness.

Anxiety is not a specific mental health condition – everyone experiences anxiety from time to time; it’s completely normal. There are biological mechanisms in place that have been passed throughout the generations through human evolution.

The primary one involved in anxiety is the fight-or-flight response, and it was designed to keep us on-guard or alert during dangerous or stressful situations. The increased adrenaline and alertness could quickly allow someone to decide if they should run away from the danger or stay around and fight it.

In the distant past, particularly before civilization, this natural mechanism was much more practical because life-threatening situations were much more prevalent due to having to live amongst nature, hunt and gather food, and protect themselves against wildlife predators.

However, while dangerous situations can certainly happen in today’s world, people’s fight-or-flight responses can become overactive even in situations that aren’t life-threatening.

For example, someone’s stress response can activate while sitting in traffic or when having to perform or speak publicly, or even when going about their daily responsibilities such as work, school, and family life.

As a result, people can develop chronic stress or anxiety disorders, which are different from the occasional anxiety that people experience. When people have an anxiety disorder, it becomes a mental health concern that can be diagnosed.

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There are quite a few different types of anxiety disorders out there, but many of them share some of the same common physical and mental symptoms. Here are some of the most common ones: [1]

  • Nervousness and tension
  • Restlessness and sleep difficulties
  • Excessive worrying that’s difficult to control
  • Difficulty concentrating and staying focused
  • Increased heart rate
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Sweating and trembling
  • Shortness of breath

Another symptom of having an anxiety disorder is trying to avoid the sources of your anxiety. While it can provide some temporary relief, it makes the symptoms much more powerful, and it reinforces your fears. [2]

Learning coping strategies and ways to manage your anxiety will be essential to overcoming it. To do so, you will eventually need to be exposed to the things that make you anxious. Medication such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which is a type of antidepressant, may also provide relief for some of the symptoms of anxiety.

What Is Depression?

For much of the general public, the idea of being depressed is often believed to be the sense of feeling sad or gloomy, and while this can be part of it, it’s not the complete picture of what depression is.

Depression is much more than “feeling blue,” and it’s a serious mental health condition referred to as major depressive disorder or clinical depression. People can feel depressed, but having depression is a different situation entirely.

Like anxiety disorders, major depression isn’t just a state of mind, and it comes with its own set of symptoms that need to be addressed, such as, but not limited to [3]

  • A sad or low mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • A lack of pleasure in activities
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Body aches and pains
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Trouble with concentration
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Suicidal ideation

If a person experiences these symptoms for two weeks or longer, they can be diagnosed with depression by a doctor or mental health professional. However, similarly to anxiety disorders, there are also different types of depression, and depending on your circumstances, you might be diagnosed with a more specific form of it.

Clinical depression can have multiple causes, and some of them aren’t fully understood yet. Still, genetic predisposition, stressful life events, and chemical imbalance are some of the most frequent reasons why people can develop clinical depression at some point in their lives.

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Because of this, people can sometimes be depressed for basically no reason at all, at least on the surface.

In these incredibly common situations, it is believed that a lack or imbalance of serotonin levels is primarily responsible for the onset of depression in a biological sense.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has many roles, but most notably, it regulates your mood, appetite, sleep, and pain, which are all things that are affected by depression. [4]

Doctors will often prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) as a first-line treatment for depression, and this can help balance your serotonin levels in your brain. Still, most people see the best results when used in conjunction with therapy because it can help change the way a person thinks and feels.

You can learn how to help fight depression and anxiety on your own as well by practicing self-care. Exercise or yoga for anxiety and depression can be extremely effective, as well as a healthy diet, which research has shown to reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.

There are also supplements and essential oils for depression and anxiety; however, there is limited research available surrounding their efficacy.

What Is Anxiety Depression? Why Are They Seen Together?

Anxiety and depression, despite being two different conditions, are ones that are often seen paired with each other. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it’s estimated that 60 percent of individuals diagnosed with major depression or anxiety disorders will have both symptoms. [5]

This is known as comorbidity, and there are a few reasons why anxiety and depression frequently coexist.

One of the main reasons can be a result of genetics and biology. For example, both anxiety and depression can run in families, and neurobiology is also very similar. Anxiety and depression share many of the same symptoms, and both can be addressed through the same types of medications, namely antidepressants, that regulate serotonin and sometimes norepinephrine.

Another reason may have to do with psychological causes and how people react to their stressors. For instance, someone who has an anxiety disorder can feel overwhelmed or afraid of something in particular and feel like they cannot cope or feel hindered by their anxiety.

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Can anxiety cause depression for this reason? The short answer is yes – anxiety can lead to depression, especially if they believe there aren’t any solutions.

For example, social anxiety and depression can go hand-in-hand because an individual may feel like their life is being limited or held back by their anxiety, which can cost them opportunities or meeting new people, which leads to them becoming depressed.

While those with an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop depression, people who have only depression are still at high-risk. Many patients who are being diagnosed are found with anxiety symptoms already. They subsequently have anxiety symptoms later on as well, but it’s not as common as the converse. [6]

The comorbidity of depression with anxiety can have serious consequences for patients. For example, comorbidity may have increased impairment and decreased functioning overall and a higher risk of substance abuse and suicide than someone who struggles with just one of the conditions. [6]

Nonetheless, even on their own, these two conditions need to be treated as soon as possible. Fortunately, much of the treatment protocol is the same for those who may have comorbid and severe depression and anxiety.

“Do I Have Anxiety Or Depression?”

As you can see, anxiety and depression are similar yet different conditions, and they each have their own diagnostic criteria.

Therefore, if you believe there is the possibility that you have either one, it’s highly recommended that you visit a doctor or a mental health professional for an assessment and a potential diagnosis.

By being diagnosed by a professional, you can start getting the treatment you need to deal with anxiety and depression; medications for these conditions require any licensed therapist to request a prescription from a doctor or a psychiatrist and psychotherapy.

If you’ve gone through the anxiety-depression symptom lists and are still uncertain, you can take a brief test for depression and anxiety, and this can give you the confidence to seek out help.

These tests are entirely free and serve to educate and help you make the healthiest decision for yourself or show you how to help someone with anxiety or depression by sharing it with them and the information in this article.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has helped shed some light on the things that make anxiety and depression different from one another. Nonetheless, despite these differences, these conditions are often comorbid with each other. Thankfully, in most cases, these conditions can be treated simultaneously and with similar strategies, which can let you improve your well-being and regain control of your life.

References

  1. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018, May 04). Anxiety disorders. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Are Anxiety Disorders? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders
  3. National Institute of Mental Health. (2018, February). Depression. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml
  4. Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, June 24). What causes depression? Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-depression
  5. Salcedo, B. (2020, January 19). The Comorbidity of Anxiety and Depression. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/January-2018/The-Comorbidity-of-Anxiety-and-Depression
  6. Hirschfeld RM. The Comorbidity of Major Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Recognition and Management in Primary Care. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2001;3(6):244-254. doi:10.4088/pcc.v03n0609