Daily Health

Anxiety vs Depression: What's the Difference?

Anxiety and depression have many closely overlapping symptoms, and people may experience both disorders simultaneously. This can make it difficult to determine whether you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or both.

It's normal for a person to feel anxious or get depressed sometimes, especially when external events trigger those reactions. 

However, there's a big difference between experiencing occasional feelings of anxiety or depression and having an anxiety or mood disorder. Our moods are always subject to change based on what's going on in our lives. 

Still, when you have a mental health disorder, those feelings will be consistently present and impact your life and ability to function significantly. 

In these cases, you're dealing with a medical disorder that can require treatment to relieve your symptoms.

It's important to distinguish between anxiety and depression to access the appropriate resources and treatments for your situation. 

In this article, we'll provide a detailed overview of the differences and similarities between anxiety and depression so that you can recognize the signs and take the steps necessary to get professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

How are anxiety and depression linked?

While anxiety and depression are not the same, each is a mental health disorder with multiple overlapping symptoms, causes, and treatments. In fact, anxiety and depression often occur simultaneously, or the presence of one may result in the other.

Major depressive disorder (MDD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are two of the most common mental health issues, with MDD affecting one in eight Canadians at some point in their lives, and GAD affecting around 3% of the population in a given year.

One of the main reasons depression and anxiety are often linked is that many people experience both simultaneously. When someone meets the guidelines for a diagnosis of both depression and anxiety at the same time, they can be referred to as comorbid conditions.

On the other hand, anxiety symptoms can also lead to depression and vice versa. This may make it difficult to separate the two disorders and understand the difference, which can be helpful when it comes to accessing the appropriate treatment.

Anxiety and depression are related to the functions of a person's neurotransmitters, which are in charge of communicating and transmitting signals between the body's cells to perform necessary functions. Anxiety and depression are also thought to be related to low serotonin levels and other brain chemical levels like dopamine and epinephrine.

To summarize, depression and anxiety share similar biological factors but are experienced differently.

How do the symptoms of depression and anxiety differ?

While there is some overlap, depression and anxiety are two distinct conditions with their own set of symptoms.

The main difference between anxiety and depression is that while depression symptoms tend to be related to low mood and sadness, anxiety symptoms are more about worry and stress.

We'll go over the symptoms of each disorder so that you can understand what signs to look out for in determining whether you have anxiety or depression.

Symptoms of anxiety

There are a number of different disorders within the anxiety umbrella, and the symptoms you experience will differ depending on what kind of anxiety disorder you have.

For example, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder will share many features, but each has to define characteristics that help obtain an accurate diagnosis.

Here are some of the main symptoms people with anxiety may experience:

  • excessive worrying about the future that things will go wrong, and irrational fear that is disproportionate to the situation
  • racing thoughts, feeling keyed up or agitated, with difficulty controlling your worries
  • avoidance of situations which may provoke anxiety
  • feeling stress and having difficulty completing normal, everyday life tasks
  • heart racing, shortness of breath, or dizziness
  • trouble concentrating
  • sleep problems (trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night)
  • upset stomach: nausea, diarrhea, constipation
  • increased heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating
  • muscle tension 

If you are experiencing some of these, it's probably a good idea to talk to a healthcare practitioner to determine if you have an anxiety disorder and require treatment.

A healthcare practitioner will use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to diagnose you.

The DSM-5 has specific criteria that must be met for an anxiety diagnosis. Here are the requirements a patient needs to meet in order to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder:

  • excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of subjects most days of the week for a period of at least six months
  • difficulty controlling worries
  • at least three of the following most days for at least six months:
  • feeling on edge or restless
  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • muscle tension
  • trouble sleeping

The symptoms present must be causing significant distress or impairment in functioning, must not be better explained by a different mental disorder, and must not be attributable to the effects of a substance (alcohol, drugs, etc) or a different medical condition.

Symptoms of depression

There are a number of mood disorders that share symptoms, like major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and debilitating depression.

Each disorder is defined by its specific combination of symptoms and is diagnosed based on several factors, including how long the symptoms have persisted.

Here are some of the symptoms you may notice if you have depression:

  • hopelessness, negative thoughts, worthlessness, guilt
  • feeling low or sad
  • low self esteem
  • feeling like a burden
  • trouble concentrating, memory problems, difficulty making decisions
  • lack of energy
  • irritability
  • fatigue
  • significant change in appetite (either appetite loss or increase)
  • moving slowly
  • body ache without cause
  • changes in sleep habits (sleeping more or less than usual)
  • loss of interest in things that once brought you joy
  • increase in crying
  • thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts

 

If you're dealing with some of these symptoms, talk to a healthcare practitioner about mood disorders.

A healthcare practitioner will compare your symptoms with the DSM-5 to determine if you meet the criteria for a diagnosis. Here are the DSM-5 requirements for a diagnosis of major depressive disorder:

The following symptoms must persist most of the day every day for a period of at least two weeks in a row:

  • the patient must experience five or more of the following symptoms, including at least one of the first two:
  • depressed mood
  • loss of interest
  • unintentional weight loss or gain, or increase or decrease in appetite
  • sleep problems (sleeping too much or having difficulty sleeping)
  • feeling agitated or slowed down
  • feeling tired, fatigued, and low energy, with decreased efficiency at completing normal tasks
  • worthlessness and excessive guilt
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, or suicide attempts
  • the symptoms must cause significant distress or impairment in functioning
  • the symptoms must not be due to the effects of a substance (drugs or the side effects of a prescription medication) or a medical condition
  • there must be no presence of a manic episode
  • the symptoms cannot be better explained by a different psychological disorder or other health condition

 

As you can see, some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression are similar or even identical. 

Still, each disorder has distinguishing features which can help you and your healthcare practitioner determine the appropriate diagnosis.

It's normal to experience some of these symptoms now and then, even if you don't have an anxiety or mood disorder, especially in response to life events like losing a loved one, physical illness, moving, or divorce. 

However, suppose you are experiencing these symptoms regularly and they are taking a toll on your quality of life and preventing you from functioning productively. 

In that case, it's a good idea to talk to a healthcare practitioner.

What is the difference between the causes of anxiety vs depression?

There is no one known cause of anxiety or depression, with both disorders being brought on by a number of factors.

Causes of anxiety

Here are some factors that can cause anxiety disorders:

  • a stressful or traumatic event
  • family history of anxiety disorders
  • childhood development issues
  • alcohol, medications, or illegal substances
  • other medical or psychiatric issues

Causes of depression

Here are some of the potential causes of depression:

  • genetics or family history of depression
  • biological factors, like an imbalance in brain chemistry, endocrine, or immune system
  • major stress

Depression can also be triggered as a reaction to a physical illness or due to neurological changes as a result of illness (i.e. stroke).

Treatments

Many of the treatments recommended for anxiety and depression are the same, although the specifics will differ based on which disorder you are diagnosed with. Here are the main treatments prescribed for both anxiety and depression:

Therapy

People with depression and anxiety alike will generally be recommended to pursue some kind of psychotherapy or talk therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is particularly popular as it teaches patients how to replace their negative or anxious thought patterns with a more realistic perspective. Therapy will often include talking about your symptoms as well as your history in order to discover the root of your problems.

Medication

There are a number of different medications that may be prescribed for anxiety or depression disorders. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often prescribed for both anxiety and depression. Some medications (such as benzodiazepines) are an appropriate treatment for anxiety but not depression. Medications all have a risk of side effects, so speak to your healthcare practitioner to see if this is a viable option for you.

Lifestyle changes

Many people with anxiety or depression have success managing their disorder by adjusting their lifestyle. Increasing the amount of exercise you get and focusing on eating healthy can cause your mood and anxiety level to improve.

Some people also use relaxation techniques or coping tools like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. It can be helpful to have a support system of friends or family who you can rely on. It's also a good idea to avoid taking stimulants and other drugs.

Whether or not you end up being diagnosed with an anxiety or mood disorder, it's always best to seek a professional medical opinion to prevent your issues from worsening.

Don't feel guilty for asking for help, even if you think your problem may not be big enough to warrant diagnosis. For example, you may be able to function with low-grade depression or high-functioning anxiety, but that doesn't mean you can't benefit from a diagnosis and treatment.

Mental health resources for depression and anxiety

If you need someone to talk to about your anxiety or depression, check out these free mental health resources for Canadians.

Kids Help Phone

Not only do they have extensive information and activities to help you learn about mental health, but Kids Help Phone also provides access to support forums where you can connect with others. They offer free crisis support through text or Facebook Messenger, as well as the ability to call or chat online with a healthcare practitioner.

If you're no longer a kid, adolescent, or young adult, Kids Help Phone has partnered with Crisis Text Line to provide 24/7 texting with trained crisis responders for Canadians of any age.

Crisis Services Canada

Crisis Services Canada is a selection of resources organized based on your region. Select your location, and you'll be given tons of options for support in your province or territory.

Wellness Together Canada

With Wellness Together Canada, you can access free educational materials, mental health courses, and apps. They also have peer support services where you can connect with a supportive community. If you're over 18, you can speak to a counsellor using their phone line.

No matter what you're going through or how severe your symptoms are, the most important thing to remember is that there are always resources available for you to seek help so that you can start feeling better and enjoying your life again.

Explore your options with a healthcare practitioner.  Start your online assessment today.


If you are having suicidal thoughts, please seek help immediately by going to your nearest emergency department or by calling 911. You can also contact Crisis Services Canada’s national suicide-prevention hotline at 1-833-456-4566 if you are considering suicide or are concerned about someone who may be.

WRITTEN BY
Felix Team
Updated on:
July 18, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Sarah Lasuta
Family Physician, MD, CCFP
Disclaimer

The views expressed here are those of the author and, as with the rest of the content on Health Guide, are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare practitioner.

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