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.
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
sleep problems (trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night)
upset stomach: nausea, diarrhea, constipation
increased heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating
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.
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
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:
trouble concentrating, memory problems, difficulty making decisions
lack of energy
significant change in appetite (either appetite loss or increase)
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:
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.
biological factors, like an imbalance in brain chemistry, endocrine, or immune system
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).
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.