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Key Differences Between Anxiety and Depression

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In today’s tumultuous world, strong mental health can be a difficult thing to maintain. An entire spread of mental health strains and mental illnesses are being experienced and diagnosed at rates never seen before. Because of this, it’s important for everyone to have a working understanding of common mental health problems, how to recognise them, and what causes them. This article will look at two common and often interlinked mental health concerns: anxiety and depression.

How anxiety and depression differ from each other

Anxiety and depression are both clinically diagnosable conditions. Though just about every human being will experience the feelings associated with anxiety and/or depression at some point in his or her lifetime, a certain portion of the population will experience one or both in an acutely intense form or for a sustained period of time, or perhaps both of those in conjunction. Severe anxious or depressive experiences need to be recognized, diagnosed, and treated appropriately in order to help the individual cope and heal.

While there is an amount of overlap, a strong differentiator exists that can help us understand the difference between anxiety and depression. According to Dr. Molly Ansari, assistant professor in Bradley University’s online master’s of counseling program, ‘Anxiety is understood as an intense fear regarding the future or a future event. Depression might be more commonly understood as an intense sadness regarding something that has already happened.’

This can help not only clinicians and medical professionals determine a correct diagnosis, but can help laypersons better understand the nuances of their own feelings and experiences (as well as those of close family members, friends, and other individuals around them).

In addition to this core difference, anxiety and depression manifest with other distinctions that can sometimes help us understand better what might be taking place. While certainly not always the case, the symptoms of anxiety often present themselves as more high-energy (including fidgeting, quicker breathing, higher average stress levels, or panic attacks) whereas the symptoms of depression can often be more mellowed and detached (including withdrawal, disinterest, increased hours of sleep, and decreased social interaction).

How this helps us understand similar causal influences

Anxiety and depression ultimately stem from different roots. However, they can be caused or exacerbated by similar experiences. Let’s look at each of these common triggers through our understanding of anxiety being primarily future-focused and depression being primarily past-focused:

Social isolation

Though sometimes confused, social isolation differs from loneliness (listed next). Social isolation is an externally imposed state. This means that an individual is separated from others for a reason or cause that was not chosen by that individual. The lockdowns, social distancing, and isolating protocols made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic make excellent examples of social isolation because these were imposed externally.

Being unable to connect with or be around other people can cause tremendous mental health strain for many individuals. The way individuals process or perceive their experience of social isolation will determine whether they are more likely to experience anxiety or depression. Those who grieve the loss of past relationships, activities, freedoms, or lost opportunities would likely experience depressive symptoms. Conversely, those that are more focused on the future implications of their experience or fear of what may happen would be more likely to feel anxiety. However, they can both be triggered by the same outward circumstances.


‘Loneliness isn’t about being alone; rather, it reflects a lack of meaningful connection to others,’ said Marina Alvelais, dean of psychology and coordinator of the Master in Neuropsychology at CETYS Universidad. Loneliness can cause or contribute to the development of either anxiety or depression in an individual. Similarly to social isolation, the way an individual perceives his or her loneliness will influence whether that individual is more likely to experience anxious or depressive traits as a result.

Addictions, especially to technological platforms or mobile devices. Addictions can exert powerful and corrosive strains on mental health and wellness. One breed of addiction that is particularly potent (when it comes to causing or intensifying both anxiety and depression) is addiction to virtual relationships, social media, and technology as accessed through our devices. Tech addictions can create many of the same symptoms that addictions to more traditional abused substances can. They can be damaging to personal relationships, erode self confidence and self worth, and create conditions conducive to developing both anxiety and depression.

It’s important to understand the nuances of anxiety and depression, both to assess in yourself and to watch out for in loved ones and close connections. Each can be pervasive and damaging and can reach severe or even life-threatening levels if not kept in check and treated seriously. The next time you wonder whether you or someone you know might be experiencing anxiety or depression, prioritize or encourage seeking professional help to assess and treat whatever things might have flared up. Both anxiety and depression can become difficult, serious states when not treated properly.

Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle. 

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