Anxiety and Depression: which one do I have?

People are often unclear about the differences between anxiety and depression, and confused as to which is their primary problem. Here’s an explanation of the differences between anxiety and depression, and some comments on the recovery process:

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety Disorders are characterized by a sense of doubt and vulnerability about future events. The attention of anxious people is focused on their future prospects, and the fear that those future prospects will be bad. Anxiety Disorders are characterized by a variety of symptoms involving anxious thoughts, unexplained physical sensations, and avoidant or self-protective behaviors.

Depression

A person whose primary problem is depression, rather than anxiety, generally doesn’t show the same fear and uncertainty that people do with anxiety disorders. Depressed people are not so preoccupied with worrying about what might happen to them in the future. They think they already know what will happen, and they believe it will be bad; the same bad stuff that’s happening to them now. The key symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling sad, and/or hopeless
  • Lack of interest and enjoyment in activities that used to be fun and interesting
  • Physical aches and pains without physical cause; lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and/or making decisions
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Unwelcome changes in usual sleep pattern
  • Thoughts of death and suicide

Depression may come on as a relatively sudden and severe problem, or it may consist of a longer-term set of symptoms that are less severe.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, is quite different from both anxiety and depression. It’s characterized by moods that shift from very high to very low. Sometimes these shifts can be quite sudden.

In the high (manic) mood, people may experience racing thoughts, less need of sleep, unusually high energy, poor judgment, abnormally high levels of enthusiasm and optimism, lots of rapid talking, ideas that they are powerful and all-knowing, and seemingly impulsive actions which cause trouble with others. In the low (depressed) mood, a person experiences the symptoms of depression described above.

It sometimes happens that a person who starts taking an anti-depressant will start exhibiting the signs of manic mood. In such cases, it’s believed that the person had a latent, or hidden case of bipolar disorder that only became evident when the depressive mood was relieved by medication. The treatment of bipolar disorder is much more likely to include the use of medication, than with the treatment of anxiety and depression.

Why people get confused about the differences

There are several reasons people get confused about the distinction between anxiety and depression. The first is that if they are receiving medication for an anxiety disorder, they’re probably getting an anti-depressant medication. A group of anti-depressant medications known as the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) have been demonstrated to be helpful with both anxiety and depression, and are now the preferred medication treatment for people who receive medication for anxiety disorders. Sometimes people with anxiety disorders receive these medications, find out they’re taking an anti-depressant, and then wonder if that means they’re depressed. It doesn’t. Not by itself.

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