The Difference Between Anxiety vs Depression

Though often casually thrown around in conversation interchangeably, anxiety and depression are two common mental health conditions. While they are different from one another, they can, and often do, occur together. Feeling down, experiencing a bout of the blues, or worrying over something that’s causing you stress are normal responses to difficult and unsettling situations — everyone experiences both feelings from time to time. But, severe or ongoing feelings of both, or either of the two can be a sign of an underlying mental health disorder. Whether it’s anxiety, depression, or both, either condition can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional, but there are distinct signs and symptoms of each. 

Despite their entrance into mainstream conversation, people still struggle to determine the difference between these two conditions. This is because many people with anxiety also develop depression and vice versa. As a result, symptoms, causes, and treatments for depression and anxiety can overlap as the relationship between the two clinical conditions is, in short, complicated. 

To accurately treat the source, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis from a professional. Use the therapy matching service, Advekit, to get connected with accessible mental health professionals. 

In the meantime, learn about the differences and similarities between depression and anxiety disorders and treatments for both conditions

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an overwhelming feeling of worry, nervousness, or apprehension about what’s to come or an event that will take place. While unpleasant, it is your body’s natural response to a high-stakes or a potentially dangerous situation. Some stressful situations that could cause one to experience anxiety may include giving a presentation for work, a job interview, or even going on a first date.

Anxiety feels different for everyone. To some, anxiety may feel like a rather mild sensation similar to butterflies in the stomach. For others, anxiety can present more intensely with a racing heart. At its most severe, experiencing anxiety may feel a loss of sense of control, as if there’s a disconnect between mind and body. 

Anxiety can also take shape in the form of nightmares, panic attacks, loss of appetite, painful thoughts, or memories, and a general sense of uncontrollable worry. Additional symptoms may include:

  • Restlessness 

  • Irritability

  • Rapid breathing

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep 

While it’s perfectly normal to experience anxiety from time to time, anxiety disorders are classified when the symptoms are extreme, last longer than six months, or disrupt everyday life. There are many types of anxiety disorders, the most commonly diagnosed being Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Other types may include separation anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias, among others. 

What is depression?

Classified as a common, yet serious mood disorder, depression is described as the feeling of sadness, sorrow, loss, or anger that interferes with day-to-day life –– often resulting in lost time, lower productivity, and an impact on relationships and some chronic health conditions.

Like anxiety, people experience depression in different ways depending on their personality, trigger, and proclivity to a depressive episode. It’s important to distinguish the difference between feeling sad, or down, and dealing with depression. It is also important to note that alternative forms of depression, like anticipatory grief, also exist. 

While unfortunate, feeling sad, or experiencing sorrow is a normal occurrence that everyone feels in reaction to upsetting events or news. However, regularly feeling hopeless or down may lead to a depression diagnosis. 

Major depression can cause a variety of symptoms, impacting both the mind and body. Depressive symptoms may come and go, or be ongoing and can be experienced differently in men, women, and children. Depression may include: 

  • Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness

  • Irregular sleeping patterns, such as insomnia, excessive sleeping, or difficulty staying asleep 

  • Decreased energy, or greater fatigue

  • Reduced sexual desire, or lack of sexual performance 

  • Physical pain, headaches

  • Digestive problems, weight loss, or gain 

  • Persistent thoughts of death and suicide 

Anxiety vs depression symptoms

Although anxiety and depression can occur separately, it’s not unusual for these mental health disorders to happen together as anxiety can be a symptom of clinical or major depression. Likewise, worsening symptoms of depression can be triggered by an anxiety disorder. Symptoms of both conditions can be managed with many of the same treatments: psychotherapy (counseling), medications (SSRI and SNRI), and lifestyle changes.

The relationship between these emotions—and their associated clinical conditions, anxiety disorders, and mood disorders—is complex. Understanding the distinctions between the two emotions, and characterizing the severity of the problem, can help determine how to feel better.

At a biological level, anxiety and depression have shared traits. Persistent states of anxiety or low moods like those experienced by people with clinical anxiety and mood disorders involve changes in neurotransmitter function. Low serotonin levels are thought to play a role in both, along with other brain chemicals such as dopamine and epinephrine.

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

Despite neurological similarities, anxiety and depression have distinct psychological features. Their mental markers (symptoms or expressions of the condition) are different.

Mental Markers of Anxiety

People with anxiety may worry about the immediate or long-term future, have uncontrollable, racing thoughts about something going wrong, actively avoid situations that could cause anxiety, or obsess about death, in the sense of fearing death due to the perceived danger of physical symptoms or anticipated dangerous outcomes.

Depending on the nature of the anxiety, these mental markers can vary. For example, someone with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities, whereas a person with a social anxiety disorder (SAD), on the other hand, is more apt to fear negative evaluation or rejection by others and to be apprehensive about socially challenging situations. Obsessions are unrealistic thoughts or mental impulses (sometimes with a magical quality) that extend beyond every day worries. They are also the hallmark mental manifestation of anxiety in people with ​obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Simply put, people with anxiety are mentally preoccupied with worry to a degree that is disproportionate to actual risk or reality.

Mental Markers of Depression

People with depression may feel hopeless, assuming that nothing positive will happen in the future. Feelings of worthlessness are also prevalent, sometimes as severely as focusing on death, and feeling like a burden to loved ones. In major depressive disorder (MDD), these types of thoughts are persistent most of the day and more days than not for weeks on end. If a person vacillates between a very low and very high mood state, then a diagnosis of bipolar mental disorder may apply. 

Physical Signs of Anxiety vs Depression

The physical symptoms of both anxiety or depression can be exhausting for the afflicted individual. The physical state of anxiety can be conceptualized overall as that of heightened arousal (not necessarily positively or sexually). Specific characteristics include:

  • Difficulty concentrating due to state of agitation or racing thoughts

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep due to racing thoughts or other physical symptoms

  • Dizziness

  • Gastrointestinal distress (e.g., nausea, diarrhea, or constipation)

  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, sweating

  • Muscle tension

  • Shortness of breath

While the physical signs of anxiety can be characterized as erratic and tense, depression is primarily characterized by steady sluggishness. Common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty with concentration, focus, and memory due to ruminative thought processes or other physical symptoms

  • Lack of energy

  • Loss of appetite or a significant increase in appetite

  • Moving or talking more slowly than usual

  • Physical achiness without cause

  • Sleeping much more or much less than is typical due to ruminative thought processes or low energy

Symptom Severity

Again, It is not unusual to experience brief periods of low mood or anxiety, particularly in response to certain life stressors (for example, loss of a loved one, receiving a diagnosis of a physical illness, starting a new job or school, experiencing financial problems, etc.). To surpass normal anxiety and meet the diagnostic threshold of an anxiety disorder, however, symptoms must be persistent (often for several months) and impairing. Mood disorders are typically diagnosed when the associated mental symptoms occur more often than not for at least a couple of weeks.

To assess the severity of symptoms ask key questions about how much the symptoms are impeding daily functioning. Asking trusted friends and family members if they have noticed changes in behavior can be helpful as well. Track your psychological and physical symptoms for a week or two to get an accurate representation of fluctuations in mood and anxiety.

Treatment for anxiety and depression

Even if the anxiety or mood problem is a low-grade issue, it is still worth seeking help. Consider how much it is interfering with life, and in what ways, to determine what kinds of interventions might be helpful.

If symptoms are mild, tending to ebb and flow, self-help interventions can be an effective place to start. These approaches can include self-help books and phone apps that adapt evidence-based psychotherapies or offer a way to practice skills that target a symptom, such as mindfulness meditation for anger or anxiety.​ If symptoms are persistent, are impacting relationships and the ability to fulfill various responsibilities, or are noticeable to others, then more formal treatment in the form of talk therapy and medication might be necessary. 

What is anxiety therapy?

Whether symptoms include panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, unrelenting worries, or an incapacitating phobia, talk therapy can help provide relief for many anxiety disorders. That’s because anxiety therapy—unlike anxiety medication—can dig deeper than just treating symptoms, the way medication can. That is to say, medication can be used in conjunction with therapy, to control symptoms enough to do the work of uncovering the underlying causes of worries and fears; learning how to relax, look at situations in new, less frightening ways, and develop better coping and problem-solving skills. Therapy gives you the tools to overcome anxiety and teaches you how to use them.

Anxiety disorders differ considerably, so therapy should be tailored to specific symptoms and diagnosis. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for example, will have a very different treatment than someone who needs help for anxiety attacks. The length of therapy will also depend on the type and severity of the anxiety disorder. However, many anxiety therapies are relatively short-term. According to the American Psychological Association, many people improve significantly within 8 to 10 therapy sessions.

While many different types of therapy are used to treat anxiety, the leading approaches are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. Each anxiety therapy may be used alone or combined with other types of therapy. Anxiety therapy may be conducted individually, or it may take place in a group of people with similar anxiety problems. But the goal is the same: to reduce anxiety symptoms and develop stronger coping skills for the future.

What is depression therapy?

Psychotherapy –– or "talk therapy" –– is also an effective treatment for clinical major depression and high functioning depression. On its own, it may not be enough to treat severe depression. But, it can play an important role when used with other treatments, including medications. It's used to help the person find ways to deal with everyday stressors and can also encourage the proper use of medication. 

Many studies support the idea that therapy can be a powerful treatment for depression. Some, although not all, have also found that combining depression medicine with therapy can be very effective. Talk therapy for depression has many benefits like offering a new perspective on problems, learning how to deal with side effects of medication, understanding how to talk to others about depression, and watching for early signs that depression is getting worse. 

How can therapy help?

It’s most important to remember to consult a mental health professional for an evaluation of symptoms to see if they meet the criteria for a depressive disorder or an anxiety disorder. If you need help finding a therapist that specializes in anxiety and depression disorders, Advekit can help match you with a therapist today and help ensure you get the best rate with your insurance plan. 


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