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Anxiety vs. Depression: What to Know

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“I’m super anxious about that presentation I’m giving in Spanish class next week.”

“I’m really depressed about the score I got on my last math test.”

The terms “anxious” and “depressed” are often used to describe stressful situations in casual conversation. It’s normal to feel anxious when entering a high-pressure conversation. It’s also normal to feel depressed in response to highly upsetting circumstances.

However, when we look at clinical anxiety and depression, people tend to experience anxiety and depression differently. Each disorder has its own causes and its own emotional and behavioral symptoms. In addition, everyone experiences anxiety disorders and depression differently. Not everyone who has an anxiety disorder or depression will experience the same set of symptoms.

For instance, anxiety can affect the way that someone approaches their relationships. Anxiety might cause one person to avoid all social situations by deactivating social media and hiding in their room, but it might cause someone else to feel like they need to be surrounded by their friends and family all the time.

In another example, depression can affect an individual’s energy levels. Depression might cause one person to feel zapped of all motivation and willpower to do the normal tasks of life. On the other hand, it might cause another person to be prone to exploding with anger and rage.

Understanding the distinctions between anxiety and depression, as well as the severity of each emotion, can help you get one step closer to feeling better.

How Anxiety and Depression Are Similar

On a biochemical level, anxiety and depression share a few different similarities. 

People with clinical anxiety and depression tend to experience symptoms, like impatience and low mood, because of the way their neurotransmitters function. 

Anxiety and depression are both caused by low levels of serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine.

While the biological underpinnings of these problems are similar, anxiety and depression are experienced differently. In this way, the two states might be considered two sides of the same coin.

Anxiety and depression can co-occur (exist at the same time) or occur sequentially (one in reaction to the other). When someone is clinically diagnosed with co-occurring anxiety and depression, their diagnoses are considered comorbid.

Anxiety and depression can occur sequentially (one in reaction to the other), or they can co-occur. When anxiety and mood problems reach the threshold for clinical diagnosis simultaneously, the specific diagnoses are considered comorbid conditions.

How Anxiety and Depression Are Different

Anxiety vs. Depression: Psychological Differences

Psychologically speaking, anxiety and depression have distinct features. As we mentioned earlier, the symptoms, or expressions of each condition, can change from person to person. In general, people with anxiety are mentally preoccupied with worrying that is disproportionate to the events that trigger it.

Mental Markers of Anxiety

  • Feeling agitated, leading to a racing pulse, sweaty palms, shaky hands, and dry mouth
  • Feeling restless, or “on edge” or having an “uncomfortable urge to move”
  • Becoming easily fatigued
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Experiencing excessive irritability
  • Having tense muscles on most days of the week
  • Having trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Having panic attacks, or an intense, overwhelming sensation of fear that can be debilitating

Depending on the nature of the anxiety, these symptoms can differ. 

  • Someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities. 
  • A person with social anxiety disorder (SAD) is more apt to fear being judged or rejected by others. As a result, they may be hesitant about meeting new people or entering other socially challenging situations.
  • Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may have unrealistic thoughts or mental impulses that extend beyond everyday worries.

Mental Markers of Depression

  • Having concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Experiencing chronic fatigue
  • Feeling guilty, worthless, and helpless
  • Feeling pessimistic and hopeless
  • Having sleep problems (insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or sleeping too much)
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling restless
  • Losing interest in things that used to feel fun or exciting
  • Having appetite problems (overeating, or not eating enough)
  • Feeling chronic aches, pains, headaches, or cramps
  • Experiencing digestive problems that don’t get better, even with treatment
  • Having persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
  • Experiencing suicidal thoughts or making suicide attempts

Depending on the nature of the anxiety, these symptoms can differ. 

  • Someone with major depressive disorder (MDD) will experience these thoughts persistently for most of the day, and for more days than not for weeks on end.
  • A person with bipolar disorder is more apt to vacillating between a very low and very high mood state.
  • Individuals with any variant of a mood disorder may have a low mood state characterized by the type of thinking described above.

Anxiety vs. Depression: Physical Differences

Anxiety brings about psychological and physical symptoms—both of which can be overwhelming. 

Physical Signs of Anxiety

People with anxiety tend to experience especially intense physical reactions to ordinary events. When you perceive that you’re in danger, your body gears up for a fight-or-flight moment: your heart beats faster, you begin to sweat, and your muscles tense, among other involuntary responses. 

The physical signs of anxiety include:

  • Digestive problems, in the form of non-specific unsettling of the stomach, outright nausea, constipation, or diarrhea
  • Headache and dizziness
  • Edginess, which can manifest behaviorally as irritability, or physically as fidgeting, trembling, or shaking
  • Fatigue due to chronic worry
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, sweating
  • Muscle tension

Physical Signs of Depression

Depression hurts. And while we often pair this mental illness with emotional pain like sadness, crying, and feelings of hopelessness, research shows that depression can manifest as physical pain, too.

The physical signs of depression include:

  • Fatigue or consistent lower energy levels
  • Decreased pain tolerance; everything hurts more
  • Back pain or aching muscles all over
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Eye problems or decreasing vision
  • Stomach pain or uneasiness in the abdomen
  • Digestive problems or irregular bowel schedules

Do I have anxiety or depression?

It’s normal to go through short periods of sadness or anxiety, especially in response to certain life stressors. Life events like the end of a relationship, your parents’ divorce, and the loss of a loved one can all trigger deep feelings of anxiety and depression.

However, to meet the diagnostic threshold of an anxiety disorder, your symptoms must be persistent (often for several months) and impairing.

To assess the severity of your anxiety or depression symptoms, try these tips:

List of Steps

step 1

Take a look at your day-to-day functioning

  • Have you noticed your anxiety is hurting your relationships?
  • Is your anxiety getting in the way of your school or work performance?
  • Do you find yourself thinking about what will go wrong in the future?
  • Are you avoiding activities that you usually enjoy because of an unexplainable feeling of dread?
  • Do you feel constantly on edge or amped up, even when there is no present danger?
  • Do you frequently blow things out of proportion, even though it doesn’t feel that way in the moment?

It might be hard to see yourself clearly, so you can ask trusted friends and family members to make some neutral observations.

step 2

Understand the differences between mild, moderate, and severe versions of anxiety and depression

Mild anxiety is normal and commonly experienced due to new or challenging life situations, like giving a presentation in front of your class or going on a first date. Once you reorient yourself, your anxiety goes away.

Moderate anxiety causes symptoms like tunnel vision, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, and stomach pain. You tend to focus on one single thing, but once you gather your bearings, your symptoms fade away.

Severe anxiety causes serious symptoms like a pounding heartbeat, chest pain, headache, vomiting or diarrhea, trembling, scattered thoughts, erratic behavior and a sense of dread. When this happens, it can feel nearly impossible to focus and solve any problems at hand, which can lead to even more anxiety.

Mild depression causes prolonged symptoms, like irritability or anger, hopelessness, self-loathing, and feelings of guilt and despair, that can last for days at a time. These symptoms affect your normal daily functioning. You may have a hard time concentrating on work or a sudden disinterest in socializing.

Moderate depression shares similar symptoms with mild depression. In addition, it may cause problems with self-esteem, reduced productivity, feelings of worthlessness, and excessive worrying.

Severe (major) depression is classified as having the symptoms of mild to moderate depression. The key differences are that your symptoms are severe and last an average of six months or longer. Major depression can also cause symptoms like delusions, feeling dissociated, hallucinations, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. 

If you think you have major depression, get medical treatment as soon as possible. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors, you should seek immediate medical attention. Call your local emergency services or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 right away.

step 3

Use a mood and anxiety chart to track your mood and anxiety levels over time

This chart can also be used to track anything that can influence (or be influenced by) your anxiety:

  • Panic disorder symptoms
  • Medications
  • Triggers
  • Coping techniques
  • Sleep patterns
  • Major life events or changes
  • Any other additional information that you feel relates to your condition.

Mood and anxiety charting can be done in an app, diary, spiral notebook, or a folder full of printer paper. You can even use a calendar—just add a few words for each date. If you don’t enjoy writing, use an app that can record voice memos.

The most important thing is to stay consistent. Pick a time each day that’s convenient for you to maintain your mood and anxiety chart. Each entry should also include the date so you can track your progress over time.

How to Treat Anxiety and Depression

Finally, if you think you might have anxiety or depression, it’s worth exploring treatment options. Start thinking about the treatment options that might work for you. Ask a trusted adult to make an appointment with a counselor, social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist to get some clarity about your anxiety issue.

You can also research local referrals via national organizations including:

Anxiety and depression can be deeply unpleasant and challenging. However, no matter where you are on the scale, it’s worth getting treatment! With the right skills and lifestyle changes, you’ll emerge with better self-awareness, emotional regulation, and a brighter outlook on life.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.



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