The difference between anxiety and depression

The Difference Between Anxiety and Depression

The difference between anxiety and depression might seem obvious, but it’s actually subtly complex and can play out in ways that profoundly affect our thoughts, behaviours, and overall well-being. 


Anxiety and depression are both natural and complex emotions that can be intense, overwhelming, and, in some cases, debilitating. But they are not just emotions; they can also be mental health disorders that affect millions of people worldwide. 


While there is a significant overlap between anxiety and depression, understanding the distinct characteristics of each, as well as how they can coexist, can help us manage each emotion more effectively, increase our self-awareness, improve our overall well-being, seek appropriate help if necessary, and/or provide the right kind of support and encouragement to any loved ones who may be struggling.


What is anxiety?


Anxiety is a natural emotional response to stress or perceived threats. It serves as a built-in alarm system that can help us stay alert and focused in challenging situations. Anxiety can manifest in various ways, from mild worry to intense panic. Some commonly related emotions include fear, unease, and apprehension.


Anxious feelings often present with physical sensations such as a racing heart, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath. Anxiousness can also bring racing thoughts, restlessness, irritability, and a sense of impending doom.


When the feeling of anxiety becomes chronic, excessive, or uncontrollable, it can develop into an anxiety disorder. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and specific phobias are some examples of anxiety disorders. These conditions can significantly impact a person’s daily life and functioning.


What is depression?


Depression is an emotional state characterised by deep and prolonged feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lack of interest or pleasure in once-enjoyable activities. Some related emotions include despair, emptiness, and apathy.


Feeling depressed often leads to physical sensations such as changes in appetite or weight, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and physical aches and pains. It is also associated with cognitive difficulties like impaired concentration, memory problems, and negative self-perception. 


When depressed feelings persist or intensify, they can develop into Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), often referred to as clinical depression. Other types include Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD), Perinatal Depression (also known as Postpartum Depression) and Seasonal Affective Disorder. Depression can also characterise Bipolar Disorder. Depression, as a condition, extends beyond mere feelings of sadness; it is an all-encompassing condition that can significantly disrupt daily life and relationships.


Is anxiety similar to depression?


Anxiety and depression – as emotions and as conditions – are distinct, but they overlap in many ways. To varying degrees, depending on the person, both bring:



Emotional distress: Both anxiety and depression involve significant emotional distress. While anxiety is marked by excessive worry and fear, depression is characterised by a profound sense of sadness and despair.


Physical symptoms: Both conditions (and even the more temporary emotional states) can lead to physical symptoms, including changes in sleep patterns, appetite, and energy levels.


Impaired functioning: Anxiety and depression as emotions, but especially as conditions, can impair a person’s ability to perform daily tasks, maintain relationships, and engage in social activities.


The difference between anxiety and depression


Anxiety and depression, though closely related, are distinct emotional states. Despite their overlapping symptoms, they differ significantly in their emotional emphasis and physical manifestations.


Emotional focus: The primary emotional focus of anxiety is fear and apprehension, often related to future events or uncertainties. In contrast, depression centres around feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest or pleasure in life. It also often involves dwelling on past events, instead of the future.


Physical symptoms: While both conditions can cause physical symptoms, anxiety tends to manifest with more acute physical sensations, such as a racing heart or sweating, whereas depression often leads to a persistent sense of fatigue and physical aches. When we feel anxious, we often feel like our bodies are speeding up; when we feel depressed, we often feel like our bodies are slowing down.


Thought patterns: Anxiety is characterised by racing thoughts, worry, and a sense of impending danger, whereas depression is associated with persistent negative thinking, self-criticism, and a bleak outlook on the future. This bleak outlook doesn’t carry the sense of doom or disaster that anxiety generates but rather is more akin to hopelessness, helplessness, or disinterest.


Can depression and anxiety occur together?


Yes. Symptoms of anxiety and depression can occur at the same time and even influence each other. It is entirely possible to experience both depression and anxiety simultaneously (a state known as comorbidity). When the two overlap, individuals may find themselves in a constant state of emotional turmoil, vacillating between overwhelming sadness and intense worry or panic.


Seeking help for anxiety vs. depression


Both anxiety and depression – the emotions and the conditions – can be managed and, if more intense, treated. Therapy, whether digital or in-person, can help someone struggling with anxious or depressed feelings (or both) build skills to manage their emotions as well as explore the factors underlying them. For some, whose anxious or depressed emotions are severe enough to interrupt their daily life, medication may be helpful. 


However, the choice of therapy and treatment approach may differ for anxiety versus depression, depending on the specific emotional struggle.


Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is highly effective for helping people manage either anxiety or depression. It helps individuals identify and challenge irrational thoughts that contribute to anxiety and negative thoughts that contribute to depression. It can also help people establish healthy coping mechanisms.


Exposure Therapy is a technique that very gradually enables individuals struggling with anxiety to experience the situations or objects they fear, helping them build resilience and reduce their anxious feelings.


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is helpful for helping people manage either anxiety or depression. It helps people identify their unique values and then use those values to guide their behaviour and life, thus reducing anxious and depressed feelings.


Mindfulness is also a proven therapy for people struggling with anxious or depressed feelings. Mindfulness techniques help people to appreciate and engage fully in the present. This can help people who feel anxious from becoming overwhelmed with uncertainty about the future. It can also help people who feel depressed from dwelling on the past or on the bleakness of the future.


When an individual experiences both depression and anxiety, a combination of therapies can be helpful in addressing both conditions effectively. 


Ultimately, for anyone feeling overwhelmed by anxious or depressed emotions (or both), it’s essential to consult a mental health professional, who can develop a personalised plan aimed at helping the person feel more in control and boosting their mood.


Anxiety and depression, while distinct, are complex emotions that can develop into debilitating mental health disorders.

Understanding their characteristics, similarities, and differences helps us understand how and why we’re struggling – and whether and how we need support. 



Learn more about the difference between anxiety and depression:


Vidula V Sawant (M.A., M.Phil., CRR No. A80980) is a clinical psychologist with  4+ years of experience and a passion for understanding the complexities of our minds and behaviours.


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