What is the Difference Between Depression and Anxiety

Updated July 02, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers

Depression and Anxiety – not quite siblings but at least distant relatives in the mental health world. The truth is that although depression and anxiety are two different medical conditions, their symptoms, causes, and treatments can often overlap.

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What Is The Difference Between Depression And Anxiety?

Chances are if you ask someone to name two common mental health problems, they will respond with anxiety and depression. Commercials on anxiety and depression medication are commonplace in today’s world, and movie stars to actors and actresses are seemingly very open about their struggles with anxiety and depression. Yet, it can be assumed that many people truly don’t know the difference between the two. It’s as if they are the same. They’re not, exactly.

Despite the fact that they are commonly referenced in conversation, people still struggle sometimes to determine the difference between these two conditions. This is because many people with anxiety also develop depression and vice versa. Roughly 50% of people diagnosed with depression will also be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Symptoms Of Depression

Depression, versus having a bad day or feeling unhappy over a bad grade or a breakup, is characterized by longer and deeper feelings of despondency and the presence of certain characteristic symptoms as shown here:

  • Depressed Mood – Feeling a bit down from time to time is normal. Most people experience events in their life that cause them to feel sad and sorrowful periodically. Facing loss or disappointment can bring a person’s mood down, but this is a temporary downcast feeling, and the person most likely eventually feels better. However, with depression, a depressed mood is much more than sadness or low mood and lasts much longer. Physical discomfort may also accompany the depressed mood, as well as difficulty sleeping, and a lack of appetite and energy.
  • Lack of Interest – A person who is experiencing depression usually has little to no motivation to do the activities they used to love doing. The desire and enthusiasm have been drastically decreased. Just thinking about going to the gym, meeting friends for a Sunday matinée, or taking a nice long hike through the woods can be arduous. They’d more likely rather stay inside their place, lie on the couch, or even stay in bed all day.
  • Increase or Decrease in Appetite – Some people overeat and gain weight, turning to food to lift their mood. People with depression will often use food to self-medicate, eating to either bring a sense of comfort or to mask the feelings of sadness and shame that often accompany depression. Others experience a decrease in their appetite due to the exhausting effects of depression, and therefore they don’t have the energy nor desire to prepare meals or eat at all.
  • Insomnia or Hypersomnia – Insomnia and depression often go hand-in-hand. Although just 15% of people with depression sleep more than the average person does, as many as 80% have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Patients with persistent insomniaare more than three times more likely to develop depression. Hypersomnia, on the other hand, is characterized by recurrent episodes of excessive daytime sleepiness or prolonged nighttime sleep. Different from feeling tired due to a lack of, or interrupted sleep at night, people with hypersomnia are compelled to nap repeatedly during the day, often at inappropriate times such as at work, during a meal, or in conversation.
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  • Lack of Energy – People with depression often report a constant feeling of fatigue. In addition to the overall lack of motivation and change in diet and appetite, the effects of insomnia or hypersomnia may also play a part in having a lack of energy. Accompanying levels of stress due to trying to make it through the day at work or feel shame for not being present with the kids can affect levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are chemicals in the brain that play an essential part in regulating mood and energy.
  • Feelings of Guilt – The idea of not being the energetic and involved parent, friend, or spouse can bring up feelings of guilt or worthlessness in a person struggling with depression. Lying in bed instead of making the kids’ lunches, having no desire to play ball with their child, or not being intimately available emotionally or physically with a partner can increase feelings of guilt and shame.
  • Trouble Concentrating – Sometimes referred to as brain fog, people with depression often experience trouble concentrating. This might include difficulty paying attention, lack of memory, delayed verbal response time, and problems with making decisions.
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors – In severe cases, depression can be life-threatening, with suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Symptoms Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. It’s common for people at one time or another to worry about things like health, money, or family problems. In fact, it’s built into our bodily system in a process called the “fight-or-flight” response, which prepares us to confront or flee any potential threats physically.

But it’s more than that for people with a generalized anxiety disorder. They have a constant feeling of worry about what can sometimes add up to many different things, even if there is no cause for concern. Here are some common symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder:

  • Excessive Worry – People struggling with generalized anxiety disorder have excessive, heightened worry about many different things, like job security, job performance, their health, and their family’s health, finances, and showing up late to work or appointments. For someone who’s not struggling with generalized anxiety disorder, these heightened worries would rarely cross there mind. But with someone with generalized anxiety disorder, the constant worry about these types of issues can affect them to the point of disrupting their daily life, making it difficult to merely function.
  • Restlessness – When someone experiences generalized anxiety disorder, their nervous system has no sense of moderation. It can’t distinguish between benign worries and life-or-death situations. As a result, it will trigger a massive release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into the body, thereby heightening sensations of alertness and wakefulness, so the person can immediately respond to the threat. It’s these feelings of alertness and hypervigilance that are mainly responsible for the feelings of restlessness. Other feelings of restlessness are caused by the non-ending cycle of worry that constantly spins throughout the mind of someone with anxiety.
  • Fatigue – The mind of a person dealing with generalized anxiety disorder can sometimes feel like it’s continuously going 100 mph without rest in sight. They may appear fidgety, restless, or irritable, but day after day, month after month of rarely slowing down mentally and emotionally, is the main reason why fatigue with people with anxiety disorders is also themain symptom.
  • Lack Of Memory And Difficulty Concentrating – Generalized anxiety disorder strongly affects our working memory, also known as short-term memory, which is critical for people to solve problems and process information in the present effectively. When the working memory is not operating at normal levels, it can lead to a person making mistakes, difficulty concentrating, and problems with multitasking.
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  • Change In Appetite – A person with a generalized anxiety disorder may experience either an increase of appetite or a decrease of appetite. One of the reasons there is an increase in appetite that a person may turn to food for comfort when dealing with stress and anxiety. The decrease in appetite is mainly due to the sudden rush of stress hormones that trigger the “fight-or-flight” response. Researchsuggests that one of the hormones – corticotropin-releasing factor – may lead to the suppression of a person’s appetite.
  • Anger And Irritability – A person dealing with anxiety disorders for a prolonged period more likely can’t handle one more bad job review, another poor medical result, or another, well, anything. In other words, they have less tolerance for additional stress and mental energy, and the anger and irritability is a result of this.
  • Sleep Disturbance – The sleep disturbance caused by chronic anxiety disorders is a vicious cycle. Your mind starts racing and worrying about a million different things, and you can’t fall asleep. And when you do, chances are your quality sleep is minimal. You wake up exhausted and fatigued, only to begin worrying that night about whether you’ll get a good night’s sleep.
  • Muscle Tension – When muscles are tightened and stressed over an elongated period, it can cause tension in the muscles and other parts of the body. A person with a generalized anxiety disorder is likely to experience panic attacks, and muscles become tense during a panic attack. They can cause feelings of stiffness and tension throughout the body, even long after the attack has subsided.

Comparing the two lists of symptoms – depression, and anxiety – it’s apparent that there is some overlap. Sleep problems, trouble concentrating, and fatigue are all symptoms of both depression and anxiety. There are, however, some distinguishing features. People with depression have a lack of energy and are fatigued while people with anxiety tend to be more worked up and nervous as thoughts race through their minds. However, people with both anxiety and depression can have these symptoms. People with anxiety have worries, oftentimes unsubstantiated, about the future. In contrast, people struggling with depression are less likely to be concerned about future events because the future is often viewed as hopeless and almost non-existent.

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If you find yourself struggling with the effects of depression and anxiety and want to explore steps to heal from it, know that the licensed professionals at BetterHelp can assist you. They have a knowledgeable and caring staff who are standing by eager to help out. You can speak with a therapist 24/7, seven days a week, in a way that is most convenient for you. Furthermore, you can call on your own time, when it’s best for you. You can contact BetterHelp here.


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