Difference Between Anxiety & Depression

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Depression and anxiety have some commonalities but they are very different disorders. This lesson will highlight the key differences. Following the lesson will be a brief quiz.

Depression or Anxiety?

Many people don't treat anxiety and depression as illnesses, but they are! They are called disorders, which can paint them in a negative light. But really, a disorder is simply when there is a disruption to your typical state or functioning. They are not signs of weakness but just an ailment that can be usually cured with exercise, medication, different forms of therapy and/or nutrition. There are some commonalities between anxiety and depression so people often get them confused. Moreover, many of the symptoms of these disorders overlap, creating even more confusion. Before we highlight the differences, let's look at what defines them separately.


Some people claim they are depressed when they are merely sad or down at times, but this is actually a normal part of being human. A person can be diagnosed as having depression, or experiencing a Major Depressive Episode (according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka the DSM-5), if there is a significant decrease in mood and/or interest in activities that s/he once enjoyed. These symptoms have to have a remarkable impact on normal functioning. A person can be diagnosed with Major Depressive Episode if they have at least five of the following nine symptoms for at least a 2-week period. At least one of the symptoms must be either significant loss of interest in activities that once interested him/her or significant decrease in mood.

  • Significant loss of interest or enjoyment in activities that once interested him/her.
  • Significant decrease in mood.
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia) or sleeping too much (hypersomnia).
  • Marked weight change or change in appetite.
  • Significant loss of energy/fatigue.
  • Decreased ability to concentrate or indecisiveness.
  • Persistent thoughts of suicide.
  • Thoughts of worthlessness or guilt.
  • Significant change of activity level (psychomotor agitation or retardation).

If symptoms of a Major Depressive Episode persist, it can turn into Major Depressive Disorder. There are other forms of depression in the DSM-V such as Bipolar Disorder (varying periods of intense mania and depression) and Persistent Depressive Disorder (chronic, long-term depression). Now, let's look at anxiety.


Anxiety, in its most common form, is formally known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in the DSM-V. In order for someone to be diagnosed with GAD, they have to have constantly worried about many things, more days than not, for at least six months and have difficulty controlling these worrisome thoughts. In addition, a person also needs to have at least three out of six of the following symptoms (children only need to have one of the six symptoms to qualify):

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Irritability or feeling irritated.
  • Feeling tension in muscles.
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep disturbance, typically insomnia, due to worrying.
  • Tendency to fatigue easily

Even though GAD is the most common anxiety disorder, there are other anxiety disorders that people can have such as phobias (being fearful of something specific, like spiders) or panic disorders (having attacks of fear or nervousness, which causes difficulty with breathing). When looking at the list of symptoms of depression and generalized anxiety disorder, it is easy to see why these two conditions are often confused! They have a lot of the same symptoms such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating or sleep disturbances.

Differences Between Depression and Anxiety

There are some key differences between depression and anxiety. The first is that depression is a mood disorder and anxiety is a nervous disorder. It is not uncommon, though, for people who are depressed to also have anxiety, and vice versa. This is called having a dual diagnosis. Here are the differentiating factors:


With anxiety, there is a major emphasis on the aspect of worry and stress, but not with depression. For example, Jill has been constantly worried and stressed on a daily basis for the past seven months about her high-stress job as an advertising executive. For a person to be depressed, they don't necessarily have excessive stress or worry, although many depressed people do. Similarly, a person who is anxious doesn't necessarily have to be depressed, although having constant worry and stress often leads to this.

Loss of Interest in Things

This is a major aspect of depression but it really is not a factor in anxiety. For instance, Jack loved playing soccer before his bout of depression. Now, he never feels like dealing with the hassle of having to practice and go to the games.

Thoughts of Worthlessness, Guilt or Suicide

These symptoms are typical of a depressed individual but not an anxious person. Jack's self-esteem has severely declined since becoming depressed and he feels like he isn't worth anything. He even feels guilty for taking up his friend's time because he doesn't feel like he is worthy of their time. Sometimes, at night, Jack thinks about ending his life. He thinks that the world would be better off without him.

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