Understanding Depression and Anxiety
The terms depression and anxiety are often used in the same sentence as conditions that frequently occur together in the same person. While the two are separate mental health conditions, they have some overlapping characteristics. And one person can suffer from both at the same time. Sometimes when the two co-exist, it can be a “chicken or egg” situation in which it’s hard to determine which condition came first. Understanding these two common mental health conditions is important in recognizing, treating, managing, and supporting yourself or someone you love who suffers from depression and/or anxiety.
What Is Depression?
The leading cause of disability worldwide according to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression impacts how a person thinks, feels and behaves. “Depression is different from usual mood fluctuations and short-lived emotional responses to challenges in everyday life,” writes WHO on its website. “Especially when long-lasting and with moderate or severe intensity, depression may become a serious health condition. It can cause the affected person to suffer greatly and function poorly at work, at school and in the family. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide.”
The Difference Between Anxiety and Depression
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 60% of people with anxiety also have depression. Recent research published in JAMA Psychiatry revealed that people with depression and anxiety both have the same abnormally low levels of activity in the areas of the brain that help regulate emotional and cognitive control. But, while there are some shared symptoms, such as sleep problems, trouble concentrating and fatigue, the two conditions are distinct.
People with depression move slowly, and their reactions can seem flattened or dulled. People with anxiety tend to be more keyed up, as they struggle to manage their racing thoughts. Depressed people who do not have anxiety are less likely to be fraught with worry about future events, as they are often resigned to believing that things will continue to be bad. In other words, they may predict the future based on how they feel in the moment.
Symptoms and Signs of Depression
Depressive symptoms vary depending upon the person. Some depressed people experience only a few symptoms while others experience many. For a depression diagnosis, a person usually has experienced several symptoms persistently for at least two weeks.
The following list of common symptoms from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) may be present in someone suffering from depression:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or ‘empty’ mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment
Like depression, anxiety can be brought on by stressors like medical illness, pain, or relationship issues. Additionally, while many people may feel anxious before a situation where they need to perform (like a big test, a presentation at work, public speaking, etc.), the persistence of these feelings over a longer period of time may signify an anxiety disorder.
NIMH reports that common symptoms of anxiety could include:
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating; mind going blank
- Being irritable
- Having muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, restlessness, or unsatisfying sleep
“People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) display excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least 6 months, about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances,” according to NIMH. “The fear and anxiety can cause significant problems in areas of their life, such as social interactions, school, and work.”
Do Depression and Anxiety Look the Same in Everyone?
The short answer to the question is no. Even with a long list of potential symptoms, no two people suffer from depression and anxiety in the exact same way. Mental illness can be difficult to diagnose, as there are many different ways individuals can present with depression, anxiety, or depression AND anxiety. These symptoms often can be experienced differently; a person’s gender, race, age, and orientation can factor into how depression is experienced. There are those who face additional challenges when seeking treatment. For example, due to stigma, many people in minority/BIPOC communities and LGBTQ communities may resist showing their emotional struggles to others and therefore may suffer silently.
The most important thing to remember is that depression and anxiety are treatable. If you have experienced either or both of these for more than 2 weeks, please ask for help.