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Mood Disorders: Depression vs. Anxiety

Two of the most common mental health disorders among people in the United States are depression and anxiety. Nearly 8 percent of people over 12 suffer from depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control, while the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) states that anxiety disorders affect more than 18 percent of adults.

While these two types of disorders are very different on the surface, there are a number of similarities between them that can make it difficult to distinguish between the two without a deeper knowledge of how each disorder manifests. At the same time, many people will experience both disorders at the same time.

The following comparison helps to illuminate the similarities and differences between depression and anxiety.

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The symptoms of depression include more than just persistent sadness or an empty feeling. Depression can manifest in many additional ways, according to NIMH, with the following symptoms, among others:

  • Feelings of anxiety, restlessness, or irritability
  • Hopelessness and loss of motivation
  • Decreased feelings of pleasure
  • Decreased energy
  • Insomnia or other sleep disturbances
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Changes in appetite
  • Aches and pains
  • Digestive problems

Many of these symptoms may be surprising, given the typical understanding of depression. Not every person diagnosed with depression will experience all of the symptoms. It is important to note that alternating periods of seeming depression with periods of high energy and intense activity could indicate a different kind of mood disorder, known as bipolar disorder. In fact, there are a number of different types of mood disorders, as explained below.


Anxiety disorders can sometimes appear to be depression in many ways. People with anxiety often experience similar feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and decreased energy. However, it is the root of these symptoms in anxiety disorders that is the key to determining the difference. Anxiety disorders grow out of a basic feeling of fear, anxiousness, or apprehension in situations where people without anxiety disorders would not have these feelings. In everything from phobias of spiders to severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders and related conditions represent an extreme response to what might otherwise be considered benign or only mildly stressful.

According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include, among others:

  • Persistent worry to a higher degree than is warranted by the situation
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Irritability
  • Changes in sleep patterns and feelings of low energy
  • Changes in digestive patterns
  • Jumpiness or being easily startled
  • Body aches and pains, including headache

A person who is struggling with an anxiety disorder may also show symptoms of depression, which could correlate to the anxiety itself or be a separate but co-occurring depressive disorder. As can be seen, many symptoms of anxiety are similar to or the same as those for depression. It is the persistent fear in anxiety that differentiates it from depression.



Depression, which is also known as a mood disorder, has a number of subtypes, as explained by Johns Hopkins Medicine. Depressive disorders include, among others:

  • Major depression
  • Dysthymia (persistent depression)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Mood disorder related to another health condition
  • Substance-induced mood disorder
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
  • Postpartum depression
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Substance-induced mood disorder can make diagnosing depression something of a challenge, because substance abuse can cause symptoms of depression; as a result, people with a substance use disorder who show symptoms of depression are often not adequately analyzed or treated for underlying depression. This can result in an inability to resolve either disorder fully, with potentially dire circumstances, as explained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Because of this, it is important to carefully diagnose and treat co-occurring disorders in order to have the best chance of overcoming any single condition.


Anxiety is generally not considered to be a type of mood disorder. In fact, anxiety is perceived to entail its own category of mental disorder types, containing its own broad range of disorders according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5).
Types of anxiety disorders include:

  • General anxiety
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Substance- or medication-induced anxiety disorder
  • Anxiety disorder due to another medical condition

As further explained by the DSM-5, people who struggle with panic attacks may not necessarily have a panic disorder or even an anxiety disorder. In fact, there are a number of other mental health disorders that can involve panic attacks; however, they are generally a feature of these disorders across the types.



Treating depression can be a challenge, especially in those who either have a co-occurring substance use disorder or a substance-induced mood disorder. Many people who receive treatment for depression are given antidepressant drugs, which can contribute to substance abuse under certain circumstances. Because of this, it can be risky to treat depression if there’s an underlying or co-occurring substance use disorder. According to a study from Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, most people who take antidepressants will not become addicted. However, people who have a personal or family history of substance abuse can potentially become addicted to antidepressants, making it more challenging to treat both the depression and the substance use disorder.

Depression tends to respond well to cognitive therapy. A study from Cognitive Therapy and Research shows that mood disorders in general can be improved through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In this technique, individuals learn to recognize and understand their symptoms, how symptoms are triggered, and how to actively change behavior patterns.

Mood disorders aren’t the only ones helped through this type of therapy. In fact, many mental health disorders respond well to cognitive therapies, including substance use disorders. This can make it easier to treat co-occurring conditions as well, making recovery possible without using potentially addictive medicines in treatment.

Anxiety disorders are often treated with antidepressants or with anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines. Similarly, anti-anxiety medications are sometimes used to treat depression. Particularly with medications like benzodiazepines, addiction or abuse is a serious risk. Similar to depression, however, cognitive therapies can help people learn to manage the symptoms of anxiety.

Behavioral therapy can help people learn different ways of managing the symptoms of both depression and anxiety. Learning to recognize symptoms and their triggers, and to substitute other behaviors that diffuse the symptoms, is a successful method of helping people recover from these often debilitating mental health disorders. In addition, exercise, hobbies, breathing exercises, and mindfulness meditation are just some of the alternative methods that have been used to help people handle anxiety. In many cases, these can help with depression as well. The key is that they can be successful in encouraging recovery without the risk of taking drugs that may contribute to issues of substance abuse and addiction, and cause other health problems.

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Learning more about anxiety and depression can not only help the people who have it understand their conditions and how to manage them, it can also help loved ones remain supportive during treatment and recovery. Depression and anxiety are challenging issues for a large number of people, but with support, treatment, and commitment, they can be managed so the individual struggling with one, the other, or both can move forward into a more purposeful, less frightening future.