What's the difference between anxiety and depression?

One in five people in Australia experience a mental health condition each year. This means there’s a chance you may know somebody affected by depression or anxiety, or may have experience of one of these conditions yourself.  But what are the differences between anxiety and depression?

What do the terms anxiety and depression mean?

A key difference between depression and anxiety is that one is a single condition, and the other is a group of conditions.

Depression is essentially one condition, although it has lots of different symptoms and may feel very different to different people. Anxiety, on the other hand, is an umbrella term that covers a range of more specific conditions. The most common of these is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) but it also includes phobias, panic disorders, adjustment disorder, and stress reaction

What do anxiety and depression feel like?

Depression and anxiety are similar in that their main symptoms relate to someone’s mood and feelings, and  there can  also be physical symptoms.

Mood and feelings

Depression is defined by having a low mood and/or a loss of interest or enjoyment in most activities, for two weeks or longer. A person with depression might also experience:

  • guilt
  • helplessness
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • low self-esteem or low confidence
  • thoughts of death, suicide, or self-harm.

The key symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder are excessive anxiety and worry on most days for six months or more, and difficulty controlling these feelings of anxiety and worry. People might also experience: feeling on edge or restless irritability. With generalised anxiety disorder you may feel very worried about a range of everyday things, without there being one obvious logical cause for your anxiety.

Physical symptoms

On the physical side, there are actually quite a few symptoms that can appear in both generalised anxiety disorder and depression, for example:

  • fatigue / tiredness
  • muscle tension and aches
  • headaches
  • poor concentration
  • being fidgety or unable to sit still 
  • difficulty sleeping.

In depression, physical symptoms can also include:

  • weight changes, often caused by unusual changes in appetite
  • being slower in your movements.

The physical effects of anxiety may include:

  • hot or cold flushes
  • dizziness
  • dry mouth, difficulty swallowing
  • bowel problems (e.g. tummy upset or diarrhoea)
  • tightness or pain in the chest
  • a fast/racing heartbeat
  • shortness of breath.

All of these symptoms can potentially be signs of other problems with your physical health, so if you’re concerned, speak with your GP.

a man with depression lying on the couch feeling fatigued

Can you have depression and anxiety at the same time?

Depression and anxiety have some distinct features, and some that overlap and it’s actually possible for someone to experience depression and anxiety at the same time. In fact it’s not just possible; it’s quite common. Around half of people with an anxiety disorder will also have depression and it’s estimated up to 85% of people with depression also experience symptoms of anxiety. 

It’s also possible to be diagnosed with one of the conditions, and to have symptoms of the other (but at a level that on their own would not lead to a diagnosis). Some experts view ‘mixed anxiety and depressive disorder’ as a separate category in itself. This is where someone may have symptoms of both conditions where neither predominates, at a level not severe enough for a formal diagnosis of either condition. 

Similarities in treatments

When it comes to depression and anxiety disorders, the two main categories of treatment are psychological therapies and medicines. 

Psychological therapies involve talking through your thoughts and feelings with a qualified professional. An example of this is cognitive behavioural therapy, which aims to address the way your thoughts, feelings and behaviours interact. 

Medicines called antidepressants can be used for both depression and anxiety disorders, and are effective for many people. The most common ones are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), though there are other types a doctor might prescribe for a patient. 

Often, a treatment approach will involve a combination of both psychological therapies and medicines. This approach will be tailored to the individual and their specific situation. The doctor may also look to address lifestyle issues as part of the treatment, if they think these may be contributing to the depression or anxiety. Find out more tips on managing anxiety here.

So, there are a few differences between anxiety and depression. But with the overlap of symptoms, the fact they can appear together, and the similar approaches to treatment, you can see why they’re so often mentioned side-by-side. 

If you’re struggling with your mood, or some of the symptoms mentioned here are familiar to you, it’s important to seek help. Don’t worry about labelling what you’re experiencing as anxiety or depression. What’s important is to get in touch with your GP so they can find out more and offer you support if you need it.
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