What’s the difference between depression and anxiety?
Depression (or more precisely, Major Depressive Disorder) and anxiety (or more precisely the anxiety disorders including Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder; with or without Agoraphobia, Social Phobia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) are the two most common psychological disorders and if combined, would be the largest contributor to disability in the world.
Depression and anxiety cause immeasurable suffering, and impact daily on the lives of hundreds of millions of individuals, families, communities and even organisations.
Depression and anxiety frequently co-occur (that is, many people with one will also often have the other).
But depression and anxiety are quite different.
To begin with, let’s take a look at the most common signs and symptoms of each.
Firstly, depression is most commonly recognised by the reporting or observation of the following:
Low mood and self-esteem
Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
Loss of appetite
Sleep disturbance and lethargy
Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
On the other hand, anxiety is more typically typified by:
Panic and fear
Ruminating and worrying thoughts
Physiological arousal – including sweating, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness
Concern about the future
Avoidance of situations in which it’s believed something terrible will happen
At the core of depression and anxiety, however, is a fundamental difference; something more profoundly different than the aforementioned symptoms. And this difference is the psychological focus of the person experiencing depression or anxiety.
Depression, you see, is a disorder primarily focused on the past. The theme of depressive thoughts is most commonly focused on what’s gone wrong; where the individual has gone wrong; all those aspects of themselves, their world and their future that are faulty and failing. Where they do think about the future, it’s not so much worrying about what might go wrong but a certainty that things will definitely go wrong AND it will be all their fault.
Anxious individuals, however, are far less certain; and they hate the uncertainty! Anxiety is much more future focused. And the focus is all about what might go wrong and how terrible (even catastrophic) it would be if it did go wrong.
Accordingly, as a result of these different cognitive orientations, physical manifestations of depression and anxiety are often quite different. Whereas people who’re depressed often feel listless and lethargic in response to their hopelessness about the future (e.g. What’s the point?), those who’re anxious tend to experience far more physiological arousal as they’re more motivated to protect themselves against the range of negative possibilities that might happen at some point in the future.
Depression and anxiety, therefore, are both different and the same. The specifics of their physical, cognitive and behavioural manifestations can easily be contrasted yet they’re both characterised by unpleasant physical symptoms, unhelpful and self-defeating thoughts and unpleasant emotions. Ultimately, therefore, each of these needs to be addressed in turn if the individual is going to enjoy a fulfilling and satisfying life.
And the good news is they can. Most people with most of the common forms of depression and anxiety, can be helped with modern, empirically based treatments such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Acceptance Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness training, exercise and on occasions, medications.
There is, therefore, good reason to feel optimistic. So, if you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety or depression then understanding is a good start; the next step is to find the right treatment and to take action.