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What’s the difference between depression and anxiety?

Mental health conditions have skyrocketed in recent times due to a combination of global events and increased pressures. One study that tracked Australians during the first month of the pandemic found mental health problems were at least twice as prevalent as in non-pandemic times. Considering around one million people have depression and more than two million have anxiety in an average year, that’s a lot of mental ill-health.

‘There’s real grounds to be anxious and worried during COVID-19,’ says clinical psychologist Dr David Hallford from the Deakin University’s School of Psychology. ‘It’s a real, immediate threat to our health and general wellbeing.’

Here’s how to know if you might be experiencing anxiety or depression – and where to go for help.

What is anxiety?

Everyone feels stressed and worried sometimes, but these feelings typically pass once the stressful situation – the exam, the public speaking engagement, the first date – is over, according to Beyond Blue.

A clinical diagnosis of anxiety can occur when these feelings don’t go away. They may last for weeks on end and might not be connected with an obvious problem. They may also start to impact your ability to cope with day-to-day life – to meet deadlines at work or school, stay in touch with friends or maintain a home.

Common physical symptoms of anxiety include panic attacks, persistent increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, hot and cold flushes, restlessness, and feeling wound up and edgy.

Dr Hallford says anxiety is typically associated with fear and avoidance behaviours. ‘With anxiety, we fear something irrationally, like a plane crashing or having a heart attack or even being late,’ he says.

‘We spend a lot of time worrying about it or being preoccupied by it. Usually, the fear is overstated relative to how dangerous or threatening the problem actually is. And one of the ways we cope with fear is to avoid it, so we may start to avoid people or places.’

Health anxiety is characterised by catastrophic thoughts about sensations in our body. ‘We start to really overstate the importance of these sensations,’ says Dr Hallford. ‘An example of that might be someone who monitors their heart rate, and even though it’s totally fine, they might have catastrophic thoughts about having a heart attack every time they feel their heart beat fast.’

Personality factors, a family history, chronic health conditions and ongoing stressful events like, say, a global pandemic can all contribute to anxiety, but there isn’t one single cause.

'With anxiety, we fear something irrationally, like a plane crashing or having a heart attack or even being late.'

Dr David Hallford,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

What is depression?

Depression is more than a bad mood. It’s feeling sad, down or miserable most of the time and losing interest and pleasure in activities that used to make you happy – for more than at least two weeks.

It’s common to feel overwhelmed, guilty and lacking in confidence, and think things like ‘Nothing good ever happens to me’ or ‘I’m a failure’. There are also tell-tale physical signs, says Dr Hallford. ‘If you’re not sleeping well, losing interest in food or binge eating and putting on weight, and lacking energy, these are core biological symptoms of depression.’

Depression is different to boredom because you lose interest in things you like – not things you’ve always found boring, like doing the dishes or driving to work. ‘When you start to lose pleasure in a bunch of things you normally enjoy and find interesting, it starts to look like depression,’ Dr Hallford says.

Depression shares many of the same risk factors as anxiety. In fact, Dr Hallford says the two mental health conditions often overlap. ‘Experiencing depression and anxiety together is actually the norm, as opposed to an exception,’ he says. ‘Most people who experience depressive symptoms will experience some level of anxiety, and vice versa.’

How to look after your mental health

Put simply, if you think you may have depression or anxiety, or even if you feel your mental health isn’t quite right, seek help – from your GP, a psychologist, a mental health organisation like Beyond Blue or even a trusted friend or family member as a first port of call.

‘If you’re concerned about your mental health, get some help,’ Dr Hallford says. ‘That’s really enough – you don’t need to have a disorder or a diagnosis to benefit from help.’

It’s also really important to focus on activities that keep you feeling psychologically well. ‘These are the things we like doing when things are ticking along okay, like getting regular exercise, trying to get adequate sleep, eating well and seeing friends,’ Dr Hallford says.

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Dr David Hallford
Dr David Hallford

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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