Anxiety vs. depression: How to tell the difference 

Anxiety vs. depression: How to tell the difference 

Reviewed by:
Nidhi Sharoha, DO
Associate Director of Clinical Education
at Talkiatry
January 29, 2024

Anxiety and depression are two common conditions that affect both your emotional and physical well-being and can interfere with your daily life through tasks and relationships. And while both conditions share some similarities in their triggers and symptoms, they also have distinct characteristics that set them apart.  

In this article, we’ll detail the key similarities and key differences between the two conditions. 

What’s the difference between anxiety and depression?  

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health disorders—and even though both disorders are distinct from each other in terms of how they are diagnosed and treated, some symptoms of depression and anxiety overlap and many people experience both.  

Overlapping symptoms include things like: 

  • Brain fog or difficulty concentrating 
  • Sleep troubles  
  • Irritability  

Prolonged feelings of anxiety can also lead to depression–especially if left untreated. For instance, if you have intense feelings of fear or worry, it can lead to feelings of hopelessness and sadness. But untreated symptoms of depression can also cause anxiety–feelings of worthlessness or frustration can turn into nervousness and fear. 

And though they share these commonalities, anxiety and depression are two separate classifications of disorders.  

Anxiety disorders generally emerge from uncontrolled worry or fear and include: 

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) 
  • Social anxiety disorder 
  • Separation anxiety disorder 
  • Panic disorder 
  • Specific Phobias 
  • Agoraphobia  
  • Substance induced anxiety disorder 
  • Anxiety due to another medical condition 

Depression is a type of mood disorder where a person may experience prolonged periods of sadness or a low mood. There are several types of depression including:  

  • Major depressive disorder (also known as major depression)  
  • Major depressive disorder with atypical onset (also known as atypical depression)  
  • Major depressive disorder with postpartum onset  
  • Major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern 
  • Major depressive disorder with psychosis (also known as psychotic depression)  
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) 

What is anxiety?  

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress – it’s how you feel when you're worried, afraid, or concerned about what’s to come and can cause overwhelming thoughts, emotions, or even physical symptoms. Everyone feels anxious at times; whether you have a big exam ahead, problems at work, or going to a new place, you might find yourself feeling nervous or uneasy. But when these feelings don’t go away, they start interfering with your quality of life, or your fears are out of proportion to the stressor at hand—it may be an indication of an anxiety disorder.   

Anxiety disorders are a class of mental health conditions that affect about 30% of adults at some time in their lives—and women are twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder than men, often occurring at an earlier age for women than men too.  Researchers think that these differences are due to brain chemistry and the fight-or-flight response being activated more readily in women.  

Symptoms of anxiety 

While anxiety can appear in various ways for people and at different levels of severity, common symptoms include:  

  • Feelings of nervousness or restlessness 
  • A sense of impending danger or doom 
  • Trouble focusing on anything but your worry or fear 
  • Excessive worrying 
  • Rapid or increased heart rate 
  • Rapid breathing or hyperventilation 
  • Sweating and shaking 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Nausea or stomach problems 
  • Muscle tension 
  • Fatigue or lack of energy 

It’s important to note that some anxiety is related to a source, especially in specific phobia where an item, or situation directly causes anxiety. Also, general anxiety disorder often occurs in the context of social stressors, and panic disorder may or may not have a trigger, which is unique to each person. Anxiety isn’t something you can talk or reason your way out of on your own, so if you think you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, reach out for professional help.  

To learn more about types of anxiety disorders and how they are treated check out: Anxiety disorders: An overview of the 5 major types. 

What is depression? 

Depression is a type of mood disorder and common mental health condition that affects how you feel, think, and act. Someone living with depression will experience a depressed mood or loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. Depression can also make it hard to think, concentrate, or retain information.  

Experiencing bouts of sadness is an expected emotion and part of everyday life, but clinical depression is different in that these feelings and thoughts persist for at least two weeks along with other symptoms. It’s estimated that more than 16% of U.S. adults—about 1 in 6 people will experience clinical depression at some point in their life.   

Women experience depression more often than men—and members of the LGBTQIA+ community are also at an increased risk for depression. Other risk factors include genetics (family members), personality (like low self-esteem), environmental factors (like poverty), and biochemistry, meaning an imbalance in certain brain chemicals.   

Symptoms of depression 

While depression appears different for every person, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) to be diagnosed as clinical depression, 5 or more symptoms must be present and need to last for at least two weeks. Plus, symptoms must cause a change to your normal level of functioning. Common symptoms include: 

  • Feeling sad, worthless, or hopeless 
  • Psychomotor agitation 
  • Psychomotor retardation (feeling slowed down or moving slower than usual) 
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies previously enjoyed 
  • Brain fog and difficulty focusing 
  • Change in appetite 
  • Weight loss or gain 
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual 
  • Fatigue and loss of energy 
  • Thoughts of death or suicide 

How do I know if I have anxiety or depression? 

Whether you’re having trouble concentrating, losing sleep, or feeling restless, it can be challenging to determine whether it’s anxiety or depression that’s disrupting these daily tasks. Though everyone experiences nervousness and ups and downs in mood, if these feelings last for a long period, it can be a sign of clinical anxiety or clinical depression. 

If you’re not quite feeling like yourself, make an appointment with a healthcare provider like your PCP or a therapist or psychiatrist, which are medical doctors that specialize in treating mental health conditions. These conditions are complex and getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step to feeling better.  

Can I have both anxiety and depression at the same time?  

Oftentimes, anxiety and depression co-exist at the same time. In fact, nearly half of the people who are diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with at least one anxiety disorder. And people who are diagnosed with anxiety are also likely to have depression, too. This isn’t surprising because anxiety can put you at risk for depression since symptoms of irritability, isolation, and restlessness can turn into feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in hobbies. If you’re experiencing these symptoms for an extended period, it’s best to seek professional help early to reduce the risk of co-occurring conditions and improve treatment outcomes. 

Treatment for anxiety vs. depression 

Everyone has brief bouts of anxiety or low mood, but when symptoms persist, it’s best to connect with a mental health professional to seek help. There are effective treatment options and medications that can help alleviate symptoms associated with both conditions.  

Often, it’s easy to ignore your anxiety and depression, thinking that it’s “not bad enough,” or that it’ll “just go away” with time. And while it’s true that there are different severities to the disorders, when anxiety or depression gets in the way of everyday tasks or relationships, it might be a sign that you need some extra support. The first step in getting help is to connect with a mental health professional like a psychiatrist, therapist or primary care provider to obtain an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment plan.  

Not sure where to start? Check out: Mental health providers: Which type is best for you? 

What does treatment look like for anxiety? 

Treatment for anxiety is highly personalized, depending on your diagnosis and the severity of your symptoms, among other factors.  

It may include talk therapy (psychotherapy) like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is commonly used to change negative patterns of thinking and improve coping skills or other therapies like exposure therapy, which focuses on facing your fears that may have been avoided. Meditation and breathing techniques might also be part of your treatment plan. 

Your doctor may also recommend medications, like anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants, and you’ll work together to find the right treatment for you.  

What does treatment look like for depression? 

If ignored and left untreated, depression can go on for months or even years and it can have a host of negative effects on your life. Depending on the type of depression you’re experiencing, treatment can vary but typically includes talk therapy (like CBT), medication (such as antidepressants) or both.  Of course, no matter the route, there will be side effects that your doctor will talk you through. 

Making an appointment with a psychiatrist can feel intimidating but Talkiatry makes the process easy and judgment free. Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care so you can see a psychiatrist from the comfort of your home. To get started, take our free online assessment to schedule your first appointment in a matter of days and get matched with a psychiatrist.

Dr. Nidhi Sharoha is a double board certified psychiatrist in Psychiatry and Consultation Liaison Psychiatry. She completed her undergraduate training at Stony Brook University followed by medical school at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine. She has completed both a Residency in Psychiatry and Fellowship in Consultation Liaison Psychiatry at Nassau University Medical Center.

Dr. Sharoha has held academic appointment at Stony Brook University Hospital, practicing as a consultant psychiatrist as well as the Associate Director of Consultation Liaison Psychiatry Fellowship Program. She has been deeply involved in teaching throughout her years

She has a genuine interest in treating a vast array of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, post traumatic stress disorders and obsessive compulsive and related disorders. She also has experience in treating patients with medical comorbidities and has training in issues related to women’s health.

Patients looking for a psychiatric provider will find that Dr. Sharoha has a gentle approach to diagnosis and management of her patients. She believes in the principle that body and mind are interconnected which allows her to provide comprehensive care to all of her patients.

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