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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 January 18, 2022

How to Stop Being Anxious And Regain Your Calm

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How to Stop Being Anxious And Regain Your Calm

Are you sick and tired of wasting your mental and emotional energy worrying about (and replaying) events in your mind? Even sabotaging yourself, your performance, and your relationships, at times? Constantly playing the “what if” game in your mind?

Let’s be honest, feeling anxious is miserable and unequivocally sucks the enjoyment out of life. It does this because it is impossible to be in the present moment when you are constantly worried about the future or past events. Here’s the deal—it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s talk about some tips on how to stop being anxious and get your calm back.

The Difference Between Feeling Anxious and Having Anxiety

Feeling anxious is just part of the human experience and is a normal stress response. When the stress is removed, the anxiety usually goes away, too. With an anxiety disorder, the stressful trigger is removed but the anxiety can still be present.[1]

There are multiple anxiety disorders with varying characteristics. If you are concerned that you may have one of them, it is best to be evaluated by your doctor, especially since anxiety is very common. According to research, up to 33% of all Americans will experience an anxiety disorder at some point during their lifetime.[2]

What Can You Do to Manage Feeling Anxious?

The good news is there’s a lot that you can do to stop being anxious. Science is learning more and more every day about ways we can manage feeling anxious.

I am a strong believer in being proactive and preventative. If you have a lot of stress in your life or are prone to feeling anxious, I always recommend establishing a foundation of good daily habits. That way, when something happens to poke the anxiety bear, you are already in a position to handle things.

Twenty tips may be overwhelming for some people but remember: you are not expected to incorporate every tip on this list. Look at it as a menu of potential helpful options. You can pick and choose whatever you want and leave the rest.

Here are 20 tips on how to stop being anxious:

1. Eat the Right Food

It might come as a surprise to some, but certain foods can make anxiety worse, such as sugary foods, processed foods, alcohol, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners.[3]

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Here are some foods you can try instead that can help reduce anxiety: Brazil nuts, fatty fish, eggs, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, Turmeric, Chamomile, yogurt, and green tea.[4]

2. Stay Hydrated

One simple tip to help you stop being anxious is by staying hydrated. Even being mildly dehydrated has been shown to worsen anxiety.[5] So, drink up! Water, that is.

3. Work Some Mindfulness Into Your Day

This one shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Meditation and diaphragmatic breathing (breathing into your belly and engaging your abdominals upon exhale) are what usually come to mind, but there are some other fast and easy exercises that can help calm you down almost immediately.

One of my favorites is called Five Things, and it’s based upon our five senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch). It can be done in any order.

For example, you might start by picking five things you can see. As you list each item, it’s important to take in the detail of each one. Next, you pick four things you can feel, noting each item with the same attention to detail. Work your way down to one item accompanying your last sense.

4. Get Some Exercise

Completing 30 minutes of exercise three to five days a week may significantly improve symptoms of anxiety. Even as little as 10 minutes has a positive impact.[6]

In one study, exercise was shown to be as effective as medication in the treatment of symptoms of anxiety, with higher intensity exercise more effective than lower intensity exercise.[7]

5. Sit With It/Observe It

Dr. Judson Brewer recently penned a book (and an app) entitled Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind in which he discusses turning toward our emotions as a way to process them rather than distracting ourselves or bottling things up (turning away).

He encourages people to be an observer of the emotional response in their bodies, almost as if conducting a research project in great detail and noting the exact location of physical sensations (stomach, right or left side, front or back) with as much detail as possible.

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6. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an approach that utilizes the cyclical connection between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors as a means to control unwanted (anxious) thoughts.

One exercise to stop ruminating thoughts includes picturing a stop sign in great detail, instructing yourself to “stop,” and then changing the narrative to something positive, encouraging, or even more realistic or likely.

Another CBT exercise involves challenging negative thought patterns and beliefs for validity by asking yourself:

  • Is there evidence for my thought or am I making assumptions?
  • What’s the worst that could happen? Is this likely?
  • What’s the best that could happen?
  • What’s most likely to happen?
  • Will this matter in a week, a year, or five years from now?

7. Realize What You Can and Can’t Control

Take action where you can. Many of us spend time worrying and feeling anxious over things we can’t control.

Figure out what you can do and take action from there. Studies show that taking action reduces anxiety.[8]

8. Gratitude

Reminding ourselves of the good things in our lives not only brings positivity to us but also reduces anxiety. This is because it is neurologically impossible for our brain to focus on negative and positive information at the same time.[9]

9. Volunteer or Do Something for Someone Else

Helping others feels good. It also reduces stress, boosts our immune system, and can help us live longer.[10]

10. Journal in the 3rd Person

The practice of journaling has long been known as a valuable tool to help us manage our emotions, and it can also help us stop being anxious and regain our calm.

Making a point to name the emotions you are experiencing (“name it to tame it”) is a principle Dr. Dan Siegel discovered that heightens the value of journaling. More recently, Dr. Kross, in his book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, noted that journaling in the 3rd person (as if narrating your life) creates further value by creating some distance between you and the emotion you are experiencing, thus allowing you to breathe easier and gain perspective.

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11. Go Out Into Nature

Spending time in nature has been shown to improve attention, lower stress, improve mood, reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders, and even cause upticks in empathy and cooperation.[11]

12. Spend Time With Animals

Dogs are not only your best friend, but it turns out they are good for your mental and emotional health, too. The fact that cats just allow you to live with them as their servant doesn’t detract from the positive impact they also have on our emotional well-being.

Spending time cuddling with your pet on the couch can decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies have also found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.[12]

13. Get Good Sleep

Getting good sleep can be difficult when we feel anxious, but being tired can worsen the issue. Try sticking to a consistent bedtime, make your bedroom dark, the temperature cool, and limit screen time before going to sleep.

14. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine

Alcohol changes the level of neurotransmitters in our brain. This can lead to a heightened sense of anxiety. Caffeine is a stimulant, specifically stimulating our fight or flight response, which is already more sensitive for those struggling with anxiety. Use both in moderation.

15. Show Yourself Compassion and Encouragement

What would you say to your best friend? Many times we make things worse by shaming or berating ourselves for feeling anxious because we fear it makes us appear weak or vulnerable. This makes the problem worse.

What would your best friend say to you? Stop beating yourself up and be your own best friend.

16. Spend Time With Friends

Healthy friendships make us feel included, improve self-confidence and self-esteem, and thus, help reduce anxiety.[13]

17. Create Balance in Your Life

Set healthy boundaries and priorities, and don’t be afraid to enforce them. Nobody else can do this for you. Value yourself. You are worth it.

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18. Have a Plan

Another tip to help you stop being anxious is to have a plan. Knowing what you will do takes away a lot of the “what if” thoughts in your mind. Being certain about some things and managing your expectations can help give you peace of mind.

19. Remind Yourself of a Past Event

You can also try to remind yourself of a past event in your life that you were anxious about but still ended up okay. Have confidence that you will make it through this situation, too.

20. Have Some Structure or Routine in Your Day

Knowing what to expect can significantly reduce anxiety and the fear that can accompany uncertainty.[14] Give yourself as much structure as you need. You’ll thank yourself for it.

Final Thoughts

It can be difficult to manage feelings of being anxious. Take charge and pick a few of these to try out. Be consistent, and see how you feel.

You can always discard what doesn’t work for you, and pick something else to try. Confide in a friend that you are implementing some new strategies, and get some support.

Always tell your doctor your concerns, and don’t hesitate to get help if you are having difficulty managing things on your own. Good luck!

More Tips for Calming Your Mind

Featured photo credit: Ben White via unsplash.com

Reference

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