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Anxiety vs. Depression: The Difference in Symptoms and Treatment and The Relationship Between The Two

Updated on July 8, 2011

Anxiety and depression are not the same. They may be related and may share symptoms. However, they are distinct generalized conditions that each affect millions of people. It is important to understand some of the similarities between the two, the differences and how one influences the other in order to get proper treatment for either condition.

There are much discussed environmental contributors to each of these. They may be wrought by and intensified by social or family conditions, genetic or chemical factors, and neurological and mental disorders. Doctors are urged not to confuse the two conditions, and it may help those who are overwhelmed by the conditions to differentiate between the two. I do not for a minute minimize the psychological component, but this focus is on the physiological aspects - the place where diagnosis and treatment must begin. In short, if prolonged psychological therapy is a remedy, we need to know the signs that take us there.


Anxiety is a chronic disorder that makes a common sense of uneasiness or dread into a continuing life affecting feeling. Humans are geared to feel some level of distress when threatened, but chronic anxiety occurs without any apparent stimulus or threat. This anxiety is a perpetual feeling of inability to control or avoid threats. Think about that rush of fear you may have when you narrowly avoid a traffic accident; now, imagine having that feeling constantly. Or, you know that jolt you experience when someone comes up behind you unexpectedly; imagine living in that state forever

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety:

  • rush of adrenaline
  • shortness of breath
  • heart flutter and chest pain
  • nausea and stomach ache
  • fatigue and muscle weakness
  • panic attacks

These panic attacks can be the feeling of passing out or falling asleep only to be shocked awake. These attacks are the physical response you feel when you near something you are phobic about: snakes, heights, spiders, etc. Now, extend this attack mode in time, and you can imagine the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral effects. You are likely to be wary, irritable, and jumpy. You may read into the symptoms, mistaking heart palpitations for heart attack or headaches for brain tumors. You may retreat and avoid social situations or obsess on concerns, blowing criticism and office chatter into nightmares.

Research believes there is some origin in nerve connectivity. Researchers have focused on the amygdala where nerve functions seem to be centered and to the hippocampus where serotonin levels fluctuate. And, it does seem that the chronic condition can be inherited genetically and aggravated socially when the patient matures in a toxic household.

The more frequent and intense the anxiety the more likely it will require cognitive or psychiatric therapy. But, some responses help manage the condition:

  • Medicate: There is a large cabinet of medications available to treat anxiety. Some of them are for mild conditions; others target serious conditions. Make yourself a patient advocate and research what is available and discuss dosage with your doctor. If your symptoms include heart palpitations or muscle pain, the doctor may consider a combination of meds for your specific needs.
  • Exercise: Make time for daily exercise. Walk or bike if the pain is mild. Join an aerobics, yoga, or tai chi class. The idea is to improve blood flow which, in turn, will aerate the blood and likely reduce headaches and restore serotonin balances.
  • Relax: Allow some "me" time, but put the time into something aligned with your needs. For example, get a massage, go fishing, read a good book at the beach, and so on. Don't just sit around thinking about stuff because that type of rumination can worsen anxiety.
  • Diet: Extra weight aggravates all the symptoms of anxiety. Work at something on a regular basis that will reduce your intake of complex or artificial sugars, chemically processed foods, and caffeine and alcohol. Increase your diet of fruits, vegetables, and anti-oxidants. Discuss vitamin or natural supplements with your doctor.
  • Share: Anxiety is not something to be ashamed of. Secrecy and avoidance only feeds upon itself. Share your problems with others and, especially with those who have the same condition. Keep your doctor informed, and if additional cognitive or behavioral therapy is recommended, embrace the opportunity. Access to locate a specialist near you.


Depression is another matter. Practitioners and patients often confuse them because they stem from the same brain center, and they may be occasioned by the same incident. Everyone is "down in the dumps" some days. But depression is a deeply rooted chronic condition with physical symptoms that are often the first sign of the life-changing condition. Because these symptoms can indicate many conditions, depression is often difficult to diagnose. But, singly or in clusters, the following symptoms are indicative of depression:

  • Joint and back pain
  • Gastrointestinal problems, including acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Sleep disturbance and consequent fatigue and sleepiness
  • Changes in appetite and motor skills

So, you can see the overlap with anxiety disorders. Moreover, depression also seems to stem from problems in neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine.

Now, when patients report these symptoms, they assume the symptoms cause their low mood, instead of the other way around. In other words, they report to the doctor for the physical symptoms not the psychological symptoms. This exacerbates the problem in diagnosis, especially among men who are not predisposed to discuss their feelings. Studies show that the duration of the physical pain extends the duration of the depressed state to the point of suicidal thoughts or attempts. The patients reach a stage where they see suicide as the logical relief of the pain.

There are types of depressive disorders, such as bi-polar disorder, post-partum depression, manic depression, and others. There are a variety of causes, including situational depression (a reaction to a life-altering event like death of a loved one), endogenous depression (an inherited condition without other explanation), depression by disease (a reaction to discovery of cancer or heart problem), and so on. There is even depression caused by a bad lifestyle or certain times of the year.

But the deeply seated feeling of no joy or interest in things once enjoyed and the feeling of guilt and pessimism without any explanation are the psychosomatic markers for depression. A slowing of the thought process and sensorial responses are cognitive red flag warnings. And generalized aches and pains or discomfort localized in digestive and bladder functions are physical signals.

  • Medication: There is an array of medications available for treatment of depression. Some are meant for mild situational events. Others for chronic but mild depression. Still others are prescribed for serious depressive disorders. None of the medications cure the condition; they are meant to enable patient and doctor/psychiatrist to manage the condition and move forward.
  • Psychotherapy: A great many patients require assessment by a psychiatrist or some psychotherapy regimen. Among the resources available to psychiatrists in the most serious cases are institutionalization and administration of shock therapy. Obviously, most patients and psychiatrists prefer meeting their needs with a combination of medication and therapy.
  • Lifestyle: Clearly, if your life is not working, you need to make some adjustments. The stresses of work and family need to be reduced or eliminated. Sleep and rest must be routine and sound. Diet must include positives and eliminate negatives. Alcohol, sugars, corn syrup, and caffeine must go. There needs to be a commitment to regular exercise and meditation. And, patients need to find support in family, friends, and or support groups.

Anxiety and depression, then, share physical symptoms, symptoms that can mask each other and make diagnosis all the more difficult. Both share pretty much the same remedies. But, depression has the deeper cause, the higher risk, and the greater cost of recovery for many people and each condition can exacerbate the other.


Submit a Comment

  • Simone Smith profile image

    Simone Haruko Smith 

    7 years ago from San Francisco

    I appreciate your explanation of the distinctions and relationship between the two. Now... I just don't want to see either touch my friends, family, or ANYONE in any significant respect :D

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 

    7 years ago from Sunny Florida

    Very thorough hub explaining the difference between the two disorders. My brother has an anxiety disorder and his symptoms are just as you listed them.

  • teamrn profile image


    7 years ago from Chicago

    Good and informative; I have just the person in mind to forward this post two!

  • profile image

    Apostle Jack 

    7 years ago

    You said it right and did it well my friend.

  • Cardisa profile image

    Carolee Samuda 

    7 years ago from Jamaica

    You hit the nail on the head. I've been there, both conditions. It took a while to get past both. This hub has provided the information to help someone who might be going through either.


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