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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

Anxiety vs Depression: What’s the Difference and How to Deal with Them?

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Anxiety vs Depression: What’s the Difference and How to Deal with Them?

Mental health awareness has come a long way in the past few years. Yet whilst anxiety, depression and the like are talked about far more now than they ever were, most conversations on the subject seem to lump all mental health issues together. The truth is that despite the tone adopted by any number of articles on the subject, anxiety and depression are not two interchangeable words to describe the same thing.

It’s possible to have anxiety and depression at the same time. It’s even possible that one could lead to the other. Yet that’s not always the case. It’s increasingly frustrating for those trying to get to the heart of their struggles and eventually get them under control.

Today, I’ll eliminate those frustrations for good by answering the key questions you have about anxiety, depression, and their relationship with one another.

Anxiety – when fight or flight goes awry

Believe it or not, a certain level of anxiety is actually helpful.

Left over from our days spent roaming the land as primitive cavemen, when every turn presented a possible threat to our existence, anxiety can prove useful in keeping us alert and focused, and in triggering a fight, flight, or freeze response when confronted with actual danger.

Healthy anxiety can be the body’s way of telling us to run the heck out of a burning building or, for a less extreme example, to bunker down and study hard if we’ve got a big test coming up.

Where anxiety becomes a problem, however, is when that fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered when no real danger exists, or at when said danger isn’t nearly as severe as the level of anxiety would seem to suggest.

That’s certainly not to say that those suffering from anxiety are over-reacting or that there isn’t a genuine problem. Rather, it’s that the situation triggers anxiety to such an intense level that, instead of being helpful, it becomes crippling.

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Take our earlier example of having an important test on the horizon. Again, a healthy level of anxiety might remind us that this is important and that we’d better study. However, our anxiety levels were too high, this could be so debilitating that not only does it prevent us from studying effectively (thus increasing the likelihood that we fail the test, thus, in turn, increasing the likelihood that we’ll be even more anxious about future tests) but create all manner of symptoms that stop us from functioning normally.

This is when we find ourselves with an anxiety disorder, a serious -albeit treatable- condition that can cause any number of symptoms, including:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Hyperventilating/panic attacks
  • Muscle tension
  • Fast, strong, or irregular heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Sickness and/or nausea
  • A sense of dread
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Trouble sleeping

Depression – the lowest of lows

Contrary to what some may believe or have told you, depression is just feeling a bit unhappy every now and again, it’s a prolonged and mostly persistent sense of being severely low, often to the point that those going through a bout of depression will lose all sense of pleasure from things they previously enjoyed.

Whereas the world can seem very intense and relentless for someone dealing with anxiety, depression often makes the world seem slow, grey and miserable.

Such is the varying extent to which depression affects people that it would take (indeed, has taken) whole books to adequately describe all the ways that it could manifest itself in someone.

At one end of the scale, for example, you may experience depression as low mood, a loss of motivation and a general feeling of lethargy, whilst at the extreme end of the scale, you may experience severe symptoms such as a complete lack of hope and even suicidal thoughts.

That said, there are some common symptoms that may be familiar to many people suffering from depression. These include:

  • Little to no enthusiasm for doing things you used to enjoy
  • Feeling tired and sluggish all the time
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Loss of appetite or over-eating
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Feeling hopeless
  • A bleak/pessimistic outlook and not being able to see a ‘way out’

Though it’s important to remember that anxiety and depression are not the same thing, that’s not to say that the two don’t occasionally cross paths.

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It’s not uncommon for anxiety to ultimately cause depression.

All that tension, panic, and being constantly on edge can be severely draining, leaving a person feeling lethargic and hopeless. It’s not uncommon for a bout of depression to follow on from a period of anxiety.

Even more common is experiencing anxiety and depression together, a dual blow that can be paralysing for those who suffer from it.

Though even the best medical experts have been unable to offer a concrete explanation as to why, it is often observed that not only do depression and anxiety disorders frequently occur together, but that when they do, their symptoms are often more extreme than in people who only suffer from one or the other.

The differences between depression and anxiety

Despite an overlap in the symptoms of both conditions -especially when they occur at the same time- there are a few noticeable differences between anxiety and depression.

If you’re trying to determine which one you’re currently dealing with, consider the following:

  • Anxiety often produces excess energy – Sweating, shaking, feeling fidgety, ‘on edge’ or like you otherwise have to keep moving around.
    Depression usually results in a loss of energy – feeling exhausted, lethargic, generally lacking any drive or motivation.
  • Anxiety often creates worry that bad things are going to happen – Those with anxiety disorders typically don’t want the bad thing to happen but are overly worried that it will.
    Depression can create a sense of hopelessness about the future – Depression sufferers often don’t worry as much because they believe they ‘know’ that bad things are inevitable and stop caring about the future because it seems bleak, desperate and unavoidable.
  • Anxiety can produce a ‘racing brain’ effect – Constantly thinking, projecting into the future, playing out scenarios in the mind. The mind can seem noisy, cluttered, and busy.
    Depression can slow down thinking – Rather than an overly-busy mind, the opposite occurs, the noise and clutter of anxiety is replaced with just a general sense of dread and despair about the future.
  • Anxiety can produce a whole wealth of emotions – Worry, anger, concern, nervousness, irritability.
    Depression often produces a lack of emotions – Other than a general, deep-seated sense of sadness and futility.

What to do if you’re suffering from anxiety or depression

The good news is that whether you’re dealing with depression, an anxiety disorder, or a combination of the two, both conditions are treatable, so you don’t have to suffer much longer.

A doctor may be able to prescribe anti-depressants, medication which addresses the chemical imbalance in the brain which is frequently linked to disorders such as anxiety and depression. They may also be able to refer you for counselling or other support such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which can provide you with powerful and effective techniques for managing and combating both conditions.

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Whilst you’re waiting for an appointment (or simply don’t want to go down the medication route) there are a number of things you can do right now to help alleviate your symptoms.

1. Get active

Did you know that exercise can be one of your powerful defences against depression and anxiety disorders?

Not only does exercise release dopamine which causes feelings of happiness and pleasure, but it can also leave you feeling calm and relaxed afterwards. A good, long workout can also tire you out, making sleep little bit easier.

2. Try yoga or Tai Chi

Prefer something a little less strenuous than an all-out, high-octane workout or a five-mile run? Research local yoga or Tai Chi classes and go along.

Most classes are extremely welcoming of beginners, and the gentle movements and breathing techniques can prove to be just as beneficial as more intense exercise when it comes to enhancing our mood and making us feel relaxed.

If you want to have a feel of how yoga helps anxiety and stress relief, check out this video:

3. Breathe deep

Speaking of breathing techniques, practising certain breathe exercises or even spending just a few minutes in meditation can prove to be highly effective in combating anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.

The best part is that you don’t even need to go to a class to learn a technique or a particular meditation. Websites like Youtube are full of really good guided meditations and breathing exercises that you can do anywhere.

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This video is a nice example of guided meditation:

4. Eat healthily

In 2017, researchers found a strong link between excess sugar consumption and depression in men.[1] Though the same link wasn’t found in women, cutting down on sugars and eating more fresh fruit and vegetables can have tremendous health benefits for both sexes.

Cutting down on sugars gives you more energy which can be very helpful in combating the feelings of lethargy and sluggishness which often accompany depression.

Both sugar and caffeine have also been known to increase feelings of tension and anxiety, so consider switching to water or decaffeinated tea to help you feel more relaxed. Here are 10 Stress Relieving Teas You can Brew at Home for you to choose from.

5. Reach out

Finally, always remember that you’re not alone.

Not everybody wants to reach out to a friend or relative, and some don’t have that option. But there are still countless support groups and helplines that you can reach out to.

If your feelings of depression are so severe that you feel you may harm yourself, please don’t suffer alone. Help is on hand no matter where you are in the world. Reaching out will mean you get all the love and support you need.

Summing it up

Anxiety and depression are different despite the similarities they share and the fact that severe anxiety may lead to depression.

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The relationship between anxiety and depression can be complicated. But getting to know the differences and similarities between the two is a big step in getting the help and support you need.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Chris Skoyles

Coach, and trainee counsellor specializing in mental health and addiction.

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Published on August 23, 2021

Why Am I Depressed If My Life Is Fine?

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Why Am I Depressed If My Life Is Fine?

If you suffer from depression or suddenly experience bouts of sadness that seem to come out of nowhere, you probably wonder why this is happening. The truth is that there are several possibilities, and you aren’t alone. According to the World Health Organization, in January of 2020, more than 264 million people were diagnosed with depression and is the leading cause of disability worldwide.[1] In this article, I will answer the question: why am I depressed if my life is fine?” I will discuss what depression is and what the possible causes of depression are. Additionally, I will offer some solutions to consider as you navigate the depression you are experiencing.

The question of why you are depressed if your life is fine is one that I can personally identify with, as I can remember a time when I went through an intense depression even though, in many ways, my life couldn’t have been much better. I was financially secure, had a good family, lived in a beautiful place, had a pretty adventurous and exciting life, but none of that could have prevented a serious and prolonged battle with depression.

Given that you are here reading this article now, you will hopefully be able to identify the problem early and get the support you need to fend off any significant depressive episodes, as this can make a huge difference in your battle with depression.

Furthermore, you don’t have to live with depression! Despite the debilitating effects of depression, with the right treatment and support, it is also one of the more “curable” mental health disorders and you can overcome it.

What Is Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by feelings of sadness, guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, irritability, and in the worst cases, despair and suicidality.

Depression from a clinical perspective is classified into a few distinctive categories, two of the more common categories are; major depression and dysthymia. According to the DSM 5, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—which governs the diagnosis of psychiatric and mental health disorders—major depression is classified as experiencing five or more symptoms in the same two-week period and must include a loss in pleasure as well as a depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.[2]

The criteria are:

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  • Loss of pleasure or joy
  • Intense feelings of sadness and depressed mood most of the day, almost every day
  • Difficulty sleeping or disturbed sleep
  • Change in appetite (increased or decreased appetite) and a 5% change in body weight
  • Difficulty focusing, poor concentration
  • Psychomotor agitation or slowing down
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Persistent thoughts of death, dying, and suicide

Dysthymia is an ongoing or persistent depressed mood for a period of two years where you feel sadness more days than not. It will include at least two of the following symptoms when depressed:

  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (having more sleep than usual)
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor concentration
  • Feeling of hopelessness

The above symptoms of dysthymia can coincide with the symptoms of major depression.

Causes of Depression

Depression happens for several reasons that I categorize into three: biology, environment, and situation. Depression also tends to occur in more sensitive people, tend to overthink, and get stuck in their thoughts, which—more times than not—are negative.

Biological causes of depression are related to how your body produces neurotransmitters that impact your moods, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Some people might have a biological predisposition for depression and never experience any significant symptoms but when confronted with a challenging life situation, such as a loss or disappointment, it can send them into a tailspin of despondency and intense feelings of low and sad mood.

Depression caused by one’s environment is more about those you might have grown up with, your family, and your home environment, which could also be connected to heredity. Regardless of your biological predisposition, you learn how to handle challenges in life by observing those around you.

Adults, in particular, are role models for children and will likely deal with life in similar ways as to what they observed. For example, a child who grows up witnessing partner abuse between their parents is at increased risk of either being a victim or perpetrator of violence in an intimate relationship as an adult.[3]

Situational depression, as I mentioned above, can be seen as more of a cause-and-effect relationship. When you are confronted with a particular life challenge or change, such as job loss, geographic relocation, or family and financial stress, these situations can cause you to fall into a temporary or prolonged depression.

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In some cases, depression can be a combination of all of the above.

Examples of Causes of Depression

Below are some examples of situations that might lead you to experience a prolonged period of depression.

Grief

The loss of a loved one, especially when sudden and traumatic, can bring about intense feelings of loss and sadness, which can lead to clinical depression. This includes the death of pets.

Medical Issue or Diagnosis

Being diagnosed with a medical issue, especially if chronic and progressive, is much like any other loss you might experience. It represents the loss of a life you had. Very often, there will need to be changes made in one’s life that will not allow for a lifestyle previously enjoyed.

A Feeling of Failure or Perceived Shortcomings

As I mentioned, people who experience depression tend to be sensitive and self-critical. You might be struggling with not getting a job promotion or failing to progress in the way you imagined for yourself, but this doesn’t mean that you are not progressing in some other way.

Sudden Life Change

Changes—even good changes and welcomed changes—are hard. Sometimes, these changes can have an impact on your role and status in society like marriage or parenthood, which are both wonderful changes yet fraught with many challenges and new social roles.

Feeling Trapped or With Limited Options

Having options is both a blessing and a curse. We know that the more options we have, the less happy we are and the more anxious we might tend to feel, wanting and needing to make the right decision. However, on the flip side, the idea that you don’t have any options can also lead to feeling trapped and feeling that your life circumstances are already written in stone.

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Burnout

Job stress, being overworked and underpaid, or the lack of fulfillment in your profession can lead to depression, which might also coincide with the feeling of being trapped and feeling as though you don’t have many options in your life and career.

What Can You Do If You Experience Depression?

It may sometimes feel as though, out of nowhere, that you are hit with depression, and this is true for many people who have a biologically based depression. However, I would argue that whenever there is something like depression or anxiety—which are defense mechanisms—there is something in your life that is not 100% congruent with who you are and where your life is at or going.

This essentially means that it’s time to take a step back and reassess a few things in life. It doesn’t mean that you will be able to wright the ship entirely. However, you might be able to make some small changes that will help you feel more in control of your life and the direction that you are going in.

1. Consider Therapy

Therapy will help you take stock and think about what is happening in your life and where you might be able to make some changes. Needless to say, you will also have the support you need to embark on making those changes. It could also be a chance to identify what it is in your life that is causing the depression. A therapist can also help you connect to other supports that might help you as you work through this period in your life.

2. Group Support Network

Processing hurt and pain through the group experience is a powerful method of connecting with yourself and others who might be experiencing similar challenges. Part of the value of group experience is knowing that you are not alone and that you have support not just from professionals but also from other people just like you.

3. Self Assessment

Self-assessment involves assessing where you are in your life in relation to your life goals, your relationships, and the direction that you are headed. Maybe it is time to make a pivot and change course, which could be a very scary thing. Bringing this kind of information to therapy will be very valuable and will assist you in the therapeutic process.

4. Take Some Time Off

Taking some time off will be and can be helpful in many ways. If you are experiencing burnout, this will give you more time for self-care and help you give yourself a break. Moreover, taking a time off gives you more time to do some of the things I described above in therapy, group work, and self-assessment.

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5. Are You Bored?

Sometimes, when we lack stimulation or work in a job for which we are overqualified, we might find ourselves feeling underutilized and as if we are not meeting our potential. This would, hopefully, come out in a self-assessment and could indicate the need to make a change in your work life.

Depression and Suicide

Depression is a serious mental health disorder. Thirty to seventy percent of deaths by suicide are attributed to major depression or bipolar disorder.[4] If you or someone you love is experiencing depression and expresses thoughts or statements about death and suicide, consult with your medical professional or mental health counselor. People who receive treatment for depression have an 80 to 90% rate of success from therapy and/or medication.

Suffice to say, if you get the treatment you need for depression, your chances of recovering skyrocket. Again, as I mentioned earlier, you don’t have to live with depression. Get the right treatment,[5] and you can have a whole new lease on life.

Final Thoughts

Depression is a mood disorder that is characterized by feelings of sadness for a long period of time. Many people throughout their lives will experience some depression in varying degrees. If you notice that what you are experiencing resembles any of what I have described above, please know that you can make changes and you can live a life free of depression. Getting help, support, and treatment is essential to addressing the depression or changes in your life that might need to be considered.

More Tips on Coping With Depression

Featured photo credit: Paola Chaaya via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] The World Health Organization: Depression
[2] NCBI: The DSM-5: Classification and Criteria Changes
[3] OASH: Office on women’s Health: Effects of domestic violence on children
[4] Mental Health America: Suicide
[5] Upside Down Flan: The Best Treatment for Depression

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