Depression Vs Anxiety: How Are They Different?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated July 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anxiety and sadness can be normal from time to time. However, if you are experiencing prolonged sadness, extreme fear, anxiety attacks, or a sense of worthlessness, you may be experiencing symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder. 

Anxiety and depression are common mental illnesses, affecting both adults and children. Anxiety disorders are the most pervasive, affecting up to 40 million Americans annually. Depression is also widespread, with about 17.3 million people in the U.S. having at least one major depressive episode yearly. 

Comparing anxiety and depression symptoms—including an anxiety or depression attack—can help you identify whether what you're experiencing is due to one or both of these mood disorders. While both conditions have similarities, they also have individual causes and symptoms. Understanding the differences between the two can help you get appropriate treatment.

Wondering if you have anxiety or depression?

What is anxiety?

An anxiety disorder is a mental illness characterized by chronic worry that impacts an individual's functioning.

A person with an anxiety disorder may constantly worry or have fears about the future. People with anxiety may also avoid the situations or places that make them anxious, which may bring relief temporarily but can strengthen the fear associated with the situation.  

There are various types of anxiety disorders. Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common and is characterized by persistent worry about everyday events, such as school or work, finances, or health. A person with generalized anxiety disorder may experience anxiety symptoms such as:

  • Constant worry
  • Nervousness
  • Fear that is disproportionate to the situation
  • Negative and distorted thinking
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscle tension
  • Excessive sweating
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping

To be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, an individual must experience the above symptoms significantly most days for six months or more. Some people may also experience panic attacks. Panic attacks are episodes of intense fear and anxiety often accompanied by mild to moderate worrisome physical symptoms, such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, or headaches. Recurring panic attacks and anxiety around when the next one might occur may indicate an anxiety disorder called panic disorder.

Other anxiety disorders include: 

  • Specific phobias
  • Agoraphobia
  • Social anxiety disorder (previously known as “social phobia”)

What is depression?

Depression is a mental illness in the "mood disorder" category of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). It revolves less around fear or worries and more around excessive and persistent sadness or numbness. A person with depression may lose interest in activities and hobbies that they used to find rewarding. Depression affects energy and motivation; daily tasks, such as taking a shower or cleaning the dishes, may take significant effort. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, some signs and symptoms of major depressive disorder may include:

  • Persistent low mood
  • Sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • Negative thinking patterns
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Impaired concentration
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loss of appetite or increased appetite
  • Insomnia or increased need for sleep
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Getting overwhelmed easily

To diagnose depression, a psychiatrist or psychologist looks for whether the depressive symptoms have lasted for most of the day, every day, for two weeks. Like anxiety, depression can range from mild to severe. It is more commonly diagnosed in women than men, although this may be due to differences in how depression presents itself and stigmas against men seeking support. 

There are different types of depression, all with specific clusters of symptoms. Below are a few depressive disorders: 

  • Major depressive disorder (MDD) 
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) 
  • Post-partum depression 
  • Major depressive disorder with psychotic features 
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) 
  • Situational depression 
  • Bipolar disorder (a separate mood disorder with depression and mania or hypomania present) 
  • Atypical depression 
  • Treatment-resistant depression 

Differences: Anxiety vs. depression

Depression and anxiety can sometimes look similar, and many individuals are diagnosed with both. Either of these conditions can also lead to other issues like substance use, as some people use drugs or alcohol to mask depressive or anxious symptoms. Behaviors associated with them may also affect your relationships over time. If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, discuss your concerns with your doctor, who can rule out any medical conditions. Your primary care physician can also refer you to a mental health professional. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

A mental health professional can assess you to determine whether you have anxiety, depression, or both. Diagnosis may consist of an in-person interview where you talk about your anxiety or depression symptoms and their effect on you and other aspects of your life. They can determine if your symptoms meet the criteria for a diagnosis and suggest treatment. If you receive an official psychiatric evaluation with a psychiatrist, you may also complete a few questionnaires about your depression and anxiety symptoms. 

Treating anxiety and depression 

There are many treatments available for depression and anxiety, and they may overlap. Untreated, these conditions can have a serious impact, decreasing productivity, causing relationship challenges, or making it difficult to function. Severe depression and anxiety may require multiple treatments and take time to resolve. Below are a few of the common treatments used to treat depression and anxiety. 

Working with a therapist

Whether you're struggling with depression, anxiety, or both, recovery can be difficult independently. Severe depression and anxiety can cause thought patterns that may make seeing hope for the future complex. A professional therapist can assist you in developing coping mechanisms and learning tactics for improving your symptoms. Research shows that psychotherapy is the most effective treatment for depression and anxiety, including when combined with medication. 

Medications and supplements

Depression and anxiety are often treated with similar types of medication. About 40% to 60% of clients experience relief with these medications within six to eight weeks of starting them. Work with your doctor to determine which medications help without causing unwanted side effects. In addition, do not start, change, or stop a prescription medication for anxiety or depression without consulting your primary care physician or psychiatrist. Note that psychologists and therapists cannot prescribe medication; psychiatry is the only practice that may do this. 

Cardio exercise

In addition to therapy or medication, lifestyle changes like exercise can be an effective coping mechanism for depression, especially aerobic exercise. Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise a few days each week can improve depression and anxiety symptoms. For people with moderate to severe depression, beginning an exercise routine can be difficult, so starting slowly and gradually building up stamina may be suggested. 

Yoga

Another form of exercise that can be beneficial is yoga. As yoga practices often revolve around relaxation techniques such as stretching, breathwork, and focus, it is often helpful in reducing symptoms of worry, anxiety, or panic. It can also help individuals sense they are grounded in their bodies.

Wondering if you have anxiety or depression?

Anxiety vs depression: How are they different?

Each individual is unique in what works best for them. Some additional types of coping strategies that can help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Writing in a journal
  • Practicing meditation
  • Listening to music
  • Working on a creative project
  • Watching a favorite movie or TV show
  • Spending time outside
  • Talking with friends or family
  • Attending mental health support groups

How to support someone with anxiety and depression

If someone close to you struggles with anxiety or depression, you may be wondering how you can support them. It can be challenging to know what to do when faced with someone else's symptoms, and if you're in a relationship with the individual, you may have a deep desire to support them or reduce their symptoms for them. 

To support the person you love, try to understand the symptoms and common treatments for their condition. In addition, be present, actively listen, and try to reduce judgment. If they aren't seeking help or solutions, you can still offer support by making validating statements, such as the following: 

  • That sounds so difficult. 
  • I can't imagine what you must be going through.
  • Thank you for telling me this; it means a lot to me that you trust me. 
  • I love you, and I am here to support you. 
  • That must be challenging.
  • Is there anything I can do to support you better? 
  • You're not alone; I'm here. 

Although suggesting treatment options or local resources can be helpful, pushing the matter might overwhelm the person. Avoid offering too much advice at once if they didn't ask for it. Be patient, take care of yourself, and be open-minded.  

Counseling options for anxiety and depression

Therapy, namely cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is an effective way to treat anxiety and depression, and online therapy has many benefits for people with these conditions. If you're experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, you might find it challenging to get out of bed, making it difficult to drive to a therapist's office and talk in person. With online therapy, you can attend sessions from the comfort of your home, and some people may find that the distance and safety of being behind a screen make it easier to open up. 

Multiple studies show that online therapy is effective, with one study concluding that participants attending online treatment had "significant and clinically meaningful improvements in depression and anxiety" after 12 weeks of treatment. If you're considering online therapy, sign up for a platform like BetterHelp to get started.

Takeaway

Anxiety and depression can happen individually, but many people with one experience the other. If you think you're experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both, talk to your primary care physician and consider contacting a therapist for further guidance and additional resources. You're not alone; anxiety and depression can be highly treatable or manageable with support. 
Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
You don't have to face depression aloneGet started