What's the difference between anxiety and depression?

profile picture of Deirdre Concannon
Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist
15 March 2024
Next review due March 2027

One in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year. Depression or anxiety are two of the most common mental health conditions. But what’s it like to have depression or anxiety and how are these conditions different from each other? Here, I talk about the differences and similarities 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). They may feel very different to different people. But the term depression refers to a single condition.
  • Anxiety 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 such as phobias and panic disorders. But the most common is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). Generalised anxiety disorder may affect 1 in every 25 people in the UK. We’ll focus on generalised anxiety in this article.

What are the differences and similarities between anxiety and depression?

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

Emotional symptoms in depression

A low mood and loss of interest in things you used to enjoy could be a sign of depression, especially if it has lasted for two weeks or more. Other mood-related symptoms that a person with depression may experience are:

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

Emotional symptoms in GAD

In generalised anxiety disorder the key symptoms are:

  • excessive anxiety
  • worry on most days for over six months, and difficulty controlling anxiety and worry

Further symptoms that someone may experience with GAD are:

  • feeling on edge or restless
  • irritability

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

Physical symptoms in depression and GAD

Physical symptoms that appear in both generalised anxiety disorder and depression are:

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

Physical symptoms in depression

In depression, physical symptoms might also include:

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

Physical symptoms in GAD

The physical effects of generalised anxiety disorder include:

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

The physical symptoms above might relate to other problems with your physical health. Or it might be something simple, for example having too much caffeine.

If you’re worried about any physical or emotional symptoms and your mental health, speak to a GP.

Can you have anxiety and depression at the same time?

Depression and anxiety are separate conditions with some overlapping symptoms. But it’s actually possible for someone to experience depression and anxiety at the same time.

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 get diagnosed with one of the conditions, and to have symptoms of the other.

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

Is treatment for anxiety different from depression?

For both depression and generalised anxiety disorder, two main categories of treatment 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.

Antidepressants are medicines 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 that doctors 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.

How do I know if I have anxiety or depression?

Generalised anxiety disorder and depression are two different conditions. They have overlapping symptoms, can happen together and have similar treatments.

If you’re struggling with your mood, or any symptoms mentioned here are familiar to you, it’s important to seek help. The only way to find out if you have anxiety or depression (or any other mental health condition) is getting a diagnosis.

So, if you are concerned about any symptoms, it’s important to get in touch with your GP. They can find out more and offer you support if you need it.

If you need help now

This page is designed to provide general health information. If you need help now, please use the following services.

  • Samaritans. 116 123 (UK and ROI) - This helpline is free for you to call and talk to someone.
  • NHS Services has a list of where to get urgent help for mental health.
  • Mind website. Click the ‘Get help now’ button on the page. This is a tool that is designed to help you understand what’s happening to you and how you can help yourself.

If you think you might harm yourself or are worried someone else might come to immediate harm, call the emergency services on 999 or go to your local accident and emergency department.

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.

profile picture of Deirdre Concannon
Deirdre Concannon
Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist



Rasheda Begum, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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