What's the difference between anxiety and depression?

Pablo Vandenabelle
Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK
31 March 2021
Next review due March 2024

One in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year. This means there’s a chance you may know somebody affected by either depression or anxiety, two of the most common mental health conditions. You may have heard these terms a lot, possibly used alongside each other. But how well do you understand them? And do you know the key differences between anxiety and depression?

What do the terms anxiety and depression mean?

A key difference between anxiety and depression is that one refers to a single illness, and the other to a group of conditions.

  • Depression is really one illness. It has lots of different symptoms (see below). And it may feel very different to different people. But the term depression refers to a single condition.
  • Anxiety is a term that can have a few different meanings. We all feel anxious sometimes and ‘anxiety’ can be used simply to describe that feeling. But when we use anxiety in a medical sense, it actually describes a group of conditions.

Anxiety includes some less common conditions. These include phobias and panic disorders. But the most common is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). Generalised anxiety disorder may affect between four and five in every 100 people in the UK. We’ll focus on generalised anxiety in this article.

What do anxiety and depression feel like?

Generalised anxiety disorder and depression can both have emotional and physical symptoms.

Mood and feelings

Depression is defined by having a low mood and/or a loss of interest or enjoyment in most activities, for two weeks or longer. These are seen as ‘core symptoms’ of depression. There are a range of other mood-related symptoms that a person with depression may experience, including:

  • guilt
  • helplessness
  • feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem or low confidence
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Similarly, generalised anxiety disorder centres on two ‘core symptoms’. These are:

  • excessive anxiety
  • worry on most days for more than six months, and difficulty controlling these feelings of anxiety and worry

And again, there are further symptoms beyond these that someone may experience, such as:

  • feeling on edge or restless
  • irritability

With generalised anxiety disorder you may feel very worried about a range of everyday things. And there may not be one obvious logical cause for your anxiety.

Physical symptoms

There are quite a few physical symptoms that appear in both generalised anxiety disorder and depression. For example:

  • fatigue or tiredness
  • poor concentration
  • being fidgety or unable to sit still
  • difficulty sleeping

But there are also physical symptoms unique to both conditions. In depression, physical symptoms might include:

  • weight changes, often caused by changes in appetite
  • being slower in your movements

The physical effects of generalised anxiety disorder include:

  • muscle tension and aches
  • headaches
  • sweating
  • dizziness
  • bowel problems
  • a fast heartbeat and shortness of breath

All of the physical symptoms above can potentially be signs of other problems with your physical health.

Can you have anxiety and depression at the same time?

It’s a complex picture. Depression and generalised anxiety disorder have some distinct features, and some that overlap. To complicate things further, it’s actually possible for someone to experience depression and anxiety at the same time.

In fact it’s not just possible; it’s quite common. Around half of people with generalised anxiety disorder will also have depression. When the conditions coexist like this, they can be more severe and long-lasting than usual.

It’s also possible to be diagnosed with one of the conditions, and to have symptoms of the other (but at a level that on their own would not lead to a diagnosis). The way symptoms overlap make it hard to be precise with numbers. But estimates of the number of people with depression who also experience symptoms of anxiety range as high as 85 per cent.

Many experts actually view ‘mixed anxiety and depressive disorder’ (MADD) as a separate category in itself. This is where someone may have symptoms of both conditions, but not severe enough to have a formal diagnosis of either condition. But this combination can still cause considerable distress and affect someone’s daily life.

Similarities in treatments

When it comes to depression and generalised anxiety disorder, one clear similarity is the way they are treated. For both conditions there are two main categories of treatment. These are:

  • psychological therapies
  • medicines

Psychological therapies involve talking through your thoughts and feelings with a qualified professional. An example is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT aims to address the way your thoughts, feelings and behaviours interact.

Medicines called antidepressants are used for both conditions and are effective for many people. The most common ones are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). But there are lots of others the doctor might try.

Treatment will often involve a combination of both psychological therapies and medicines. This will be tailored to the individual and their situation. The doctor may also look to address lifestyle issues as part of the treatment, if they think these may be contributing to the depression or anxiety.

So generalised anxiety disorder and depression are two different conditions. But you can see why they are often mentioned together. They have overlapping symptoms, can happen together and have similar treatments. If you’re struggling with your mood, or some of the symptoms mentioned here are familiar to you, it’s important to seek help. Don’t worry about labelling anything as anxiety or depression. What’s important is to get in touch with your GP so they can find out more and offer you support if you need it.

If you’re feeling particularly distressed and feel the need to talk to someone immediately, you may want to contact The Samaritans.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Pablo Vandenabelle
Pablo Vandenabeele
Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK

    • Mental health facts and statistics. Mind., published June 2020
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    • Anxiety and stress-related disorders. Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry (3rd ed, online). Oxford Medicine Online., published June 2019
    • Depression. NICE Clinical Evidence Summaries., last revised February 2021
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    • Generalised Anxiety Disorder. BMJ Best Practice., last updated March 2021
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    • Psychotherapy. Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry (4 ed, online)., published June 2019

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