Anxiety Compared to Depression

Page content

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety compared to depression reveals that there are distinct and similar symptoms. Anxiety can exist as a symptom of depression or a person can experience both diagnosable depression and diagnosable anxiety at the same time.

Dysthymia, or depressive features that are less severe than major depression and anxiety disorders are the most common comorbid conditions (Corcoran & Walsh, 2006). The identifying symptoms help to distinguish between each disorder.

Anxiety is a state of heightened worry, uneasiness, or apprehension (Bjornlund, 2010). Anxiety disorders feature unreasonable worry due to the lack of the perceived threat. According to McIntosh & Livingston (2008), the abnormal state of anxiety is characterized by the feeling of powerlessness and the inability to cope with threatening events - typically imaginary - and by physical tension evidenced by sweating, trembling, and other physiological reactions.

Depression is a medical illness characterized by ongoing feelings of hopelessness and despair, usually combined with poor concentration, lack of energy, and sleep problems (Bjornlund, 2010). Additional depressive symptoms include feelings of helplessness and thoughts of or attempts at suicide.

Anxiety Compared to Depression: Similarities

Both anxiety and depression have to interfere with daily functioning at work, school, and in relationships for at least six months or more in order for a diagnosis to be made. Genetic links and social or environmental conditions contribute to the development of both depression and anxiety. Common symptoms of both listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) include difficulty falling or staying asleep, poor concentration, low energy, and being easily fatigued.

Both anxiety and depression can also be accompanied by irritability and outbursts of anger. Therapy, medication, or a combination of both are used to treat anxiety and depression (Bjornlund, 2010). The effectiveness of treatment is dependent on the identification of the presence of either condition or both. Treatment must address anxiety and depression independently when they co-occur.

The Differences

Anxiety compared to depression reveals distinctive symptoms that set them apart. Anxiety symptoms include tension, autonomic nervous system hyperactivity, and hypervigilance (Corcoran & Walsh, 2006). Tension includes trembling and muscle soreness and feelings of restlessness. The autonomic nervous system hyperactivity includes shortness of breath, a feeling of being smothered, accelerated heart rate, profuse sweating, clammy hands, dry mouth, lightheadedness, abdominal distress, hot flashes or chills, frequent urination and difficulty swallowing (Corcoran & Walsh, 2006). Hypervigilance symptoms include heightened startle response and feeling on edge.

Symptoms of depression often manifest as feelings of sadness, emptiness and emotional numbness. Corcoran & Walsh (2006) identified depressive symptoms reflected in behaviors, attitudes, cognitive processes, and physiological traits. Depressive behaviors include agitation, crying, flatness of expression and slowness of physical movement and speech. While anxiety has a heightened startle response depression displays a decrease.

The attitudes associated with depression include guilt, shame, low self-esteem, pessimism, and thoughts of death or suicide. Cognitive impairments caused by depression include a decreased ability to think or remember. Physiological symptoms include an inability to experience pleasure, changes in appetite and weight, or somatic complaints.

The underlying emotions of anxiety and depression also differ. Depression is characterized by extreme sadness while anxiety centers on extreme fear. Anxious behaviors often reflect hyperactive responses due to underlying, irrational fear. Depression may cause a person to do the exact opposite of what is observed in anxiety in terms of reaction. A person experiencing depression may appear to shut down, and seem to experience no emotions, looking as though they are numb to the world that surrounds them.


American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th edition, (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Bjornlund, L. (2010). Depression. Detroit: GALE CENGAGE Learning.

Corcoran, J. & Walsh, J. (2006). Clinical assessment and diagnosis in social work practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

McIntosh, K. & Livingston, P. (2008). Youth with depression and anxiety. Philadelphia: Mason Crest Publishers.