The difference between anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression are different conditions but have many co-existing symptoms, causes and treatments.

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Anxiety and depression explained  

Depression is characterised by a sense of unhappiness, despair or sadness. Anxiety is a feeling of worry or apprehension, often in relation to normal parts of life.

Feelings of depression and anxiety are normal human responses to every day events. You may feel sad or unhappy (or ‘depressed’) when something disappoints us or we experience loss. If you have an upcoming event of significance, like an exam or job interview, it may lead to you feeling ‘anxious’. If these feelings persist over a period of time, it might be that you have an associated condition – known as depression (or mood disorder) and anxiety disorder.

The two are typically thought of as distinct, but there is a significant crossover. Below, we’ll break down the main differences and similarities in the symptoms, causes and treatments of depression and anxiety.

Can you have anxiety and depression at the same time?

Many people will experience co-existing depression and anxiety. A World Health Organisation (WHO) World Mental Health Survey found that 41% of people with a year-long major depressive disorder also had one or more anxiety disorders over the same 12-month period.

Anxiety and depression symptoms

Depression and anxiety differ when it comes to some key signs and symptoms:

Depression symptoms

  • Intense feelings of sadness
  • Guilt
  • Worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Tearfulness
  • Suicidal thoughts

Anxiety symptoms

  • Sense of worry, dread or apprehension
  • Feeling trapped
  • Fearful, paranoid and tense
  • Extreme stress
  • Shortness of breath and tightness in your chest

Overlapping symptoms

It’s important to recognise that, with depression and anxiety, you may get a totally separate set of symptoms than someone else. However, there are many areas where the two share similar symptoms. Any of the following could be as a result of either anxiety or depression:

  • Fatigue, or a decrease in your energy levels
  • General sense of irritability or anger
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Changes to sleeping patterns, be it a lack of sleep or oversleeping
  • Decrease in your mood
  • Unable to relax, focus or concentrate

What causes depression and anxiety?

Depression and anxiety also share some potential causes and risk factors.

Environmental or social factors

Events that unfold in your life can be the ultimate trigger of a condition like anxiety or depression. Things like losing your job, experiencing a break-up or divorce, or having to deal with grief or bereavement can lead to you developing mental health problems.


Aspects of your lifestyle can have a big impact on you developing anxiety or depression. Socially, things like isolation or loneliness can trigger mental health issues. Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs can also play a big role in leading to issues with these mental health conditions.

Trauma or abuse

If you experience a traumatic event in your life, or have in the past, this can be a catalyst for depression and anxiety. In childhood, that might be neglect or abuse. As an adult, examples include being the victim of a crime, being involved in a car accident or involvement in highly stressful circumstances like war. Sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a type of anxiety disorder – are highly likely to struggle with depression.


Genes play some role in developing mental health disorders. If a close family member, like parent or sibling, has struggled with depression or anxiety, it can increase your chances of experiencing them too.

There are also other factors that could increase your level of risk to developing depression and/or anxiety:

  • Age – older people struggle with depression and anxiety more. Factors include a general decline in health and the increased likelihood of isolation compared to younger people
  • Gender – statistics on mental health show women are more likely to develop mental health problems than men. Reasons include the hormonal changes women experience in life and that they produce more stress hormones than men. Women are also much more likely to speak about and seek treatment for mental health problems. As many as 40% of men have never spoken to anyone about their mental health.
  • Existing mental health issues – if you already struggle with another mental health condition outside of depression and anxiety, this may increase the likelihood of you developing these conditions. An eating disorder is one example of a condition that can lead to depression and anxiety

Does depression cause anxiety or vice versa?

Anxiety disorders and depression can often interchange with those who are suffering with their mental health. Anxiety as a symptom (a general feeling of unease or worry) is commonly one of the symptoms of depression. If you experience anxiety consistently as a result of your depression, you might also develop a type of anxiety disorder.

Similarly, it’s common for an anxiety disorder to trigger a type of depression. Anxiety disorders can severely damage someone’s ability to lead a normal life, leading to the general sense of sadness and unhappiness that characterises depression.

Dealing with anxiety and depression

The similarities in depression and anxiety continue when you consider the relevant coping strategies. If you are experiencing one or both of these conditions, try and introduce a few of these five simple tips to improve your symptoms:

  1. Be as active as you can. Try and get out and exercise as much as possible, even if it is just for a short walk
  2. Review your diet and make it as balanced and healthy as you can
  3. Stay connected socially. If you feel up to it, meet family and friends to ensure you don’t become isolated
  4. Aim to improve your sleep. Get between 7-9 hours’ sleep a night. Stick to a consistent bedtime and avoid using electronic devices in bed
  5. Breathing exercises are just one method of reducing anxiety and lifting your mood. It can even be as simple as enjoying a hobby like cooking or reading a book

Anxiety and depression treatment

Co-occurring anxiety and depression are often treated together. The same treatments have been shown to be effective against depression and anxiety, especially if you are experiencing overlapping symptoms.

Whatever treatments are appropriate for you, it’s likely to include a combination of therapy and medication. Many types of therapies are known to be effective against depression and anxiety. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is considered the gold-standard therapeutic treatment for many mental health disorders. It focuses on identifying, challenging and reframing unhelpful thoughts and behaviours.

Other effective therapies for anxiety and depression include exposure therapy, mindfulness and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR).

Medication is also often prescribed to help limit damaging symptoms and help you fully focus on the underlying causes of your condition. Examples used for anxiety and depression include antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or anti-anxiety medication like beta-blockers.

After a diagnosis, a medical professional can advise you on the most suitable treatments for your symptoms. Approaching your GP about the difficulties you’ve been experiencing is a good start, but you can also get the very best private mental health help with Priory.

Page clinically reviewed by Dr Ian Nnatu (MB BS, PG DIP (CBT), MSc, FRCPsych, MRCPsych) Consultant Adult Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London

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