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Anxiety vs. Depression: What's the Difference?

Kristin Hall, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 1/5/2021

Anxiety and depression are two of the most commonly talked about mental health disorders affecting the quality of life of people today. 

Mental health conditions like these, despite the number of people talking about them, are unfortunately not as well understood as they could be. 

And sometimes, the similarities and overlaps among their symptoms can mislead people into believing they have one condition when in reality they have another. 

Whether you feel like you may be experiencing anxiety or depression, there's no way to know for sure without contacting a mental health professional. 

But if you're sad and worried about the possibility of having either condition, there are some things that might calm your nerves. Let's start with the basics.

Anxiety and Depression: What They Are

Anxiety and depression are two very similar mood disorders with many overlapping symptoms.

Rather than get into the weeds from the beginning, though, it’s best to approach these two conditions with their clinical definitions. 

Clinical depression and its related forms of depression, like major depressive disorder and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), are caused by certain feelings that create recurring patterns of sadness, emptiness and feeling down. 

These patterns affect (and may cause impairment of) a person’s ability to make decisions, take actions and generally live their lives the way they want to. 

Some forms of depression may manifest over long periods of time (persistent depressive disorder) or become intense, like major depression.

Anxiety disorder, meanwhile, shares collective symptoms of anxiety, unease or panic, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). This may manifest in the form of occasional panic attacks with panic disorder, or it may be milder in generalized anxiety disorder, causing things like irritation and insomnia. 

Likewise, anxiety symptoms are felt for at least a few weeks, though different forms of anxiety disorder may show ebb and flow patterns of intensity throughout the anxious person’s weeks, months and years. 

People suffering from the most common anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), may display excessive anxiety or worry most days for at least six months. 

This anxiety may be related to things like work, social interactions, personal health and everyday routine or other life circumstances.

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The Similarities Between Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression share many things in common. 

Aside from both being classified as mental health disorders (and also mood disorders), the two conditions share a multitude of overlapping symptoms, according to a study published in the journal, Depression and Anxiety.

Anxiety and depression are both treatable conditions that can cause fatigue, sleep issues (like insomnia), nervousness, irritability and difficulty concentrating. 

It’s uncanny how many of these and other symptoms can potentially be a result of both conditions — so uncanny, in fact, that science has noted the oddly large comorbidity (or simultaneous occurrence) of these conditions.

Depending on the source, between 40 percent and 98 percent of sufferers experience this comorbidity in studies. In fact, some experts have even looked to try and understand why — with no results yet to share.

Both conditions are likewise responsive to similar treatments. We’ll get into these later, but lifestyle and dietary changes, as well as exercise and particular medications, have all demonstrated solid efficacy for both anxiety treatment and the treatment of depression (they both also respond well to therapy).

One study published in the journal, Psychopharmacology Bulletin even suggested that these two conditions, which are the results of norepinephrine and serotonin imbalances in the brain, may actually just be versions of one another to an extent. Research is ongoing.

Can You Have Anxiety and Depression at the Same Time?

You can, in fact, have both depression and anxiety, and even if you don’t have them both all the time, you might exhibit signs of one or the other on occasion. 

Experts suggest that the increasing frequency of overlap between these two mood disorders is actually a cause for concern — in some cases, comorbidity of anxiety and depression can actually make treatment more difficult, which for you might mean that the uphill battle gets an incline twice as steep.

If you’re experiencing anxiety and depression symptoms but have only a diagnosis for one (or neither), you should make an appointment with your healthcare provider or mental healthcare professional sooner than later.

What is the Difference Between Depression and Anxiety?

Telling the two conditions apart may be difficult if someone has both, and even if they don’t, there’s room for error. 

A depressed person can be intensely worried about the way their condition is affecting them, and chronic anxiety can make people have some degree of feelings of sadness or worthlessness.

On the other hand, anxiety may cause physical symptoms often associated with depression, like low energy or muscle tension, and it may cause restlessness different from insomnia or make the sufferer have difficulty with activities due to uncontrollable worry.

It’s the little specifics about depression and anxiety that make them different. In fact, the difference between anxiety and depression lies in the way that a person experiences symptoms. While symptoms may include indifference or numbness, loss of interest, as well as feelings of anger and recklessness, the specific severity of these symptoms may help to identify whether you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or both. 

Still, the two have many things in common and can be hard to tell apart — which is why the conditions may often be co-occurring.

Anxiety and Depression Treatments

Anxiety and depression can be tough and tiring conditions to treat, but together they can be twice as bad. 

Luckily — mercifully — many of the treatments for these conditions overlap in some beneficial ways.

According to an article published in the Official Journal of the Association of Medicine and Psychiatry, increased recognition that these two disorders often overlap will lead to more effective treatment in the future, and the long-term benefits of effective treatment options also make these chronic conditions much more tolerable over the lifespan of an individual with both. 

As for specific treatments, there are quite a few that can address both depression and anxiety — including SSRIs. 

A form of antidepressant, SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are designed to alleviate the symptoms of depression by correcting imbalanced serotonin levels in your brain, according to an article published in the Singapore Medical Journal. Regulating serotonin can help you even out your moods, as well as the disorders that cause them. 

Here’s the good news: The Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care says that SSRIs are also the go-to solution for the treatment of anxiety, and offer anti-anxiety benefits as on- or off-label tools for a psychiatry provider to employ. 

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, healthcare providers might also employ selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs, to regular norepinephrine levels. 

Norepinephrine is both a neurotransmitter and a stress hormone, and it’s frequently the target of medication when serotonin medications don’t work. 

According to the NIH, depression and anxiety can also both be treated with psychotherapy in many forms — we like to highlight Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or "talk therapy", which is currently considered one of the most effective therapeutic styles for both conditions. 

An article published by the journal, BMJ, explains that CBT helps anxiety and depression sufferers recognize and take control of the bad thinking patterns that often are the cornerstone of anxiety and depression, which ultimately gives power and control back to the patient. 

We’ve explored CBT and other forms of therapy in our guide, What Is Psychotherapy & How Does It Work?.

Anxiety, depression and many other mood disorders might also be addressed effectively with certain lifestyle changes, and a healthcare professional might ask you to eat a different diet, exercise more frequently or cut back on things like alcohol and other substances in daily life to mitigate the increased harm they can do.

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Final Thoughts: Anxiety and Depression

People dealing with both depression and anxiety already know that these are hard disorders to live with, and that they’re really hard to treat. We doubt we’ve taught you anything new if you’re part of this group. 

What we do hope we’ve made clear is that treatment is possible, it’s effective, and it’s widely available if you’re willing to take that step. 

And you should. 

What is the next step? Contacting your primary care provider or a mental healthcare professional. They will be able to diagnose, recommend and even prescribe the right treatment or treatments for your particular needs, which may be very different from those of others with these conditions. 

Anxiety and depression aren’t one-and-done disorders to treat, but the hardest step in many people’s opinions is that first one. Take it today, for yourself. 

Want to wait until the morning? Need to think it over for a couple of days; talk to a loved one about it? We understand that it’s a big decision. If you’re still asking questions, check out our mental health resources guide to find the answers.

If you don’t want to wait, consider a telepsychiatry evaluation right now or explore the option of online counseling.

8 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Baldwin, et al. (n.d.). Can we distinguish anxiety from depression? Psychopharmacology bulletin. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12490832/.
  2. Craske, et al. (2012, December). Diagnostic overlap of generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder in a primary care sample. Depression and anxiety. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3629816/.
  3. Hirschfeld, R. M. A. (2001, December). The comorbidity of major depression and anxiety disorders: Recognition and management in Primary Care. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC181193/.
  4. How, et al. (2017, August). Managing depression in primary care. Singapore medical journal. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5563525/.
  5. Medication: Anxiety and depression association of america, ADAA. Medication Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://adaa.org/find-help/treatment-help/medication-options.
  6. Taylor, C. B. (2006, April 22). Panic disorder. BMJ (Clinical research ed.). Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1444835/.
  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Anxiety disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml.
  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017, October 19). Treatment options for generalized anxiety disorder. InformedHealth.org Internet. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279594/.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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