Is It Anxiety or Depression? How to Tell the Difference

Woman sits at table in outside cafe, looking thoughtfulMany people who experience anxiety or depression know the symptoms of each are not always well-defined. For instance, they can overlap. Commonly overlapping symptoms of anxiety and depression include difficulty concentrating, sleep issues, tiredness, and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.

It is not always easy to tell which condition is causing symptoms. In many cases, people seem to experience aspects of anxiety and depression. They may not know whether they are dealing with anxiety, depression, or even both. One reason for this confusion is each condition’s ability to mimic the other.

Identifying one main cause of symptoms is not always possible or necessary. But knowing the root causes of your symptoms could help you find the best treatment approach. A deeper understanding of your experience may also help you feel more hopeful about seeking help.

Key Differences Between Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety is a constant feeling of worry. It can occur on its own or be triggered by certain events or factors. Physical signs of anxiety often include shortness of breath and tense muscles. People dealing with anxiety sometimes experience panic attacks, heart palpitations, and dizziness.

Depression is prolonged sadness or loss of interest in formerly enjoyable activities. It is characterized by low energy, feelings of low self-worth, and sometimes, suicidal thoughts.

Symptoms that overlap between anxiety and depression often have different origins. For example, anxiety may cause a person to stop doing an activity or withdraw from a social setting. This is often because those things inspire panic. Depression can also cause someone to withdraw in similar ways. In the case of depression, withdrawal may be due to loss of interest in the activity.

Fatigue or loss of energy are other symptoms often linked to depression. But anxiety may also cause a loss of energy, which can stem from a sense of exhaustion. This tiredness is often caused by anxious thought patterns, obsessive thinking, or rumination. In the case of depression, loss of energy may be more likely to occur as a primary symptom.

Both conditions can cause social withdrawal or a change in activity levels. These symptoms can have vastly different causes. Different approaches may be necessary to address these causes.

Signs Anxiety May Be the Cause

If you identify with most of these symptoms, you may be experiencing anxiety:

  • Cold, sweaty, numb, or tingling hands or feet
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Racing thoughts
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

Being diagnosed with a specific anxiety disorder may also mean anxiety is a root cause. For instance, someone who experiences panic attacks or social anxiety may still have symptoms of depression. These may cause someone to withdraw from life, relationships, or social settings. This behavior can trigger feelings of hopelessness and loneliness, which may mimic depression.

Anxiety may also be a more likely cause if:

  • You have a family history of anxiety
  • You experienced shyness as a child
  • You have experienced these symptoms from a young age

People diagnosed with depression may experience feelings of anxiety. The term for this is “anxious distress.” It is characterized by feelings of tension, restlessness, and difficulty focusing. The sense of hopelessness that can come with depression may cause worry about the future. Those who experience depression and anxious distress may be at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts. It is important to seek treatment in these cases.

Signs Depression May Be the Cause

Depression is categorized as major depressive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). One key sign of depression is major depressive episodes. When these occur, symptoms of depression may become severe enough to limit daily functioning. Some other primary signs of depression are:

Some types of depression are easier to identify as such. For example, depression caused by a certain life event may be easy to identify. Postpartum depression, which occurs after childbirth, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), include symptoms of depression that have distinct triggers.

People who mainly experience anxiety may also be diagnosed with one of these depressive conditions. In these cases, the conditions would be seen as co-occurring, or comorbid. This term is used when two separate conditions are both present.

The experience of swinging to and fro between anxiety and depression can be a frustrating one. It may feel like a negative cycle in which balance is much needed but difficult to attain.

Depression may also be a more likely cause if:

  • It runs in your family
  • You recently experienced a traumatic loss

If a person is only diagnosed with anxiety, they may still show signs of depression. People with anxiety may expend much of their energy toward worry. These thoughts can leave people with little energy for performing daily tasks or hobbies. When anxiety causes overwhelm or burnout, it may start to look like depression.

The experience of swinging to and fro between anxiety and depression can be a frustrating one. It may feel like a negative cycle in which balance is much needed but difficult to attain.

Do I Have Both Anxiety and Depression?

It can be difficult to tell if you have both anxiety and depression or if symptoms of one just look like the other. In one study, 72% of people with generalized anxiety had a history of depression. Meanwhile, only 48% of people with depression had a history of anxiety. But research indicates comorbid anxiety and depression may be more common than originally thought.

The study also points out that comorbidity can be cumulative. This means a person may experience anxiety and depression at different life stages. Some experts suggest that anxiety at a young age may increase the likelihood of experiencing depression in the future. But depression may also precede anxiety.

When You Are Confused About Your Symptoms

Questions or concerns about depression and anxiety should be directed to a trusted mental health professional. Therapists are often trained to identify the root causes of issues. Discussing your symptoms in therapy may help you discover the source of the issue that prompted you to seek help. Once you and the therapist identify the issue, you can learn how to overcome or manage it.

Talk therapy can be helpful in identifying the cause of certain symptoms. A trained therapist can help unravel your symptoms and see what may be causing them. Whether you experience anxiety, depression, or both, your therapist can help create a plan for addressing those conditions long-term. This may mean more therapy sessions, a support group, psychoeducation, or medication and treatment with a psychiatrist in conjunction with therapy.

Regardless of what next steps you take, it is important to remember that people experience anxiety and depression differently. It’s not always necessary to know every cause of a mental health issue to treat it. But labeling or identifying an issue, especially a root problem, may help reduce feelings of worry or uncertainty in some people. Remember that you are never alone. Any help and guidance for improving your mental health may only be one question to a trusted therapist away.


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  • Jayna

    July 19th, 2018 at 5:35 PM

    Great article! I think you’ve really helped shed some light on this topic, as they are often comorbid and it can be difficult to distinguish one set of symptoms aside from the other. Just wondering if anyone has heard of the research surrounding micronutrients in the treatment of both of these disorders? It’s something some of my clients have been trying, and they have reported improved mental health and clarity, less depression and anxiety. Curious as to what the mental health community, and those who suffer from anxiety and depression think about trying micronutrients as a treatment alternative to psychotropic meds.

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