Are you feeling helpless and hopeless due to depression — or helpless and overwhelmed due to anxiety? Here’s how to parse the two.
Most of us feel depressed and anxious now and again. However, intense and persistent feelings of depression and anxiety can be symptoms of mental health conditions.
But how do you know if it’s one, the other, or both?
If you’re feeling more than natural emotions, it may be comforting to know both depressive and anxiety disorders are treatable and distinguishable.
The terms “depression” and “anxiety” can refer to three different things:
- mental health conditions
- symptoms of mental health disorders
- natural human emotions
Often, people use the word “depression” as a blanket term to refer to all depressive disorders. Similarly, people sometimes use “anxiety” to refer to all anxiety disorders.
Mental health conditions
Depressive disorders include:
- major depressive disorder (MDD)
- persistent depressive disorder (PDD) (dysthymia)
- premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
- seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- peripartum depression and postpartum depression
- situational depression
- disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)
Anxiety disorders include:
- generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- panic disorder
- social anxiety disorder
- separation anxiety disorder
- specific phobias
Terms used for feelings
However, depression and anxiety are also used to describe everyday emotions.
Anxiety can be a feeling of worry or unease. People often use the word “depressed” to describe feeling down. Though anxiety can be situational, depressive episodes are much more profound and isn’t the same as being sad.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), depression is only diagnosed after symptoms are experienced most of the day, every day, for at least 2 weeks.
You can feel anxious without meeting the criteria for diagnosis for the disorders mentioned above.
Symptoms of other mental health conditions
Depression and anxiety can be symptoms of other mental illnesses, including:
|persistent feelings of worry, dread, and fear||persistent feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and hopelessness|
|feelings of helplessness||feelings of helplessness|
|withdrawing socially||withdrawing socially|
|racing thoughts, restlessness, feeling on edge||difficulty feeling excitement or interest|
|shortness of breath, dizziness, upset stomach||lack of energy|
|eating/sleeping too much or too little||eating/sleeping too much or too little|
|possible suicidal thoughts||possible suicidal thoughts|
|difficulty thinking and concentrating||difficulty thinking and concentrating|
|can be treated||can be treated|
Both anxiety and depression can leave you feeling helpless. The difference is in how that helplessness presents.
Anxiety paralysis describes when someone feels frozen with indecision and filled with angst over the unknown. The effect may be a sensation of helplessness.
Avolition, or lack of motivation, is a symptom of some mental health conditions including depression. This symptom persists even when someone may know there are tasks to be done or behaviors to be fulfilled. Knowing that there’s things to do and not being able to do them can make someone feel helpless.
However, the conditions have some similarities. Both can make it:
- difficult to function
- interfere with your sleeping and eating patterns
- interfere with your ability to concentrate
Anxiety symptoms vs. depression symptoms
The symptoms of anxiety largely differ from the symptoms of depression. But both can have physical and emotional symptoms.
Anxiety symptoms can include:
- racing thoughts
- feelings of dread or panic
- feelings of restlessness
- shortness of breath
- constant worry
- rapid heart rate
- upset stomach
Depression symptoms can include:
- feelings of numbness or emptiness
- feelings of guilt and worthlessness
- loss of interest in the activities you usually enjoy
- thoughts of death or suicide
- lack of energy
Both depression and anxiety can cause:
- social withdrawal
- sleeping too much or too little
- eating too much or too little
- difficulty with memory or concentration
- suicidal thoughts
Whether you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, or symptoms of both, you might benefit from speaking to a mental health professional. Whether you are diagnosed or not, therapy can help.
Anxiety and depressive disorders can be treated, with:
- talk therapy
- prescription medication
- self-care strategies
Talk therapy for anxiety and depression
Therapy is a safe place to start when seeking help for anxiety or depression. Talk therapy is one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health.
Several kinds of talk therapy can be used to treat depression and anxiety disorders. These include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
- acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- family therapy
Not everybody with anxiety or depressive disorders needs medication. However, for some people, prescription meds can be helpful.
If you have anxiety or depression, your doctor might prescribe one or more of the following:
If a doctor prescribes any sort of medication, it’s important to take the medication as instructed. It can be dangerous to suddenly stop taking it or attempt to wean yourself off without professional supervision. If you experience side effects, you can let a doctor know.
Self-care strategies for anxiety and depression
Whether you have depression or anxiety, self-care strategies can help you feel better.
This can include healthy habits like:
- establishing a sound sleep hygiene regimen
- exploring different activities to get your blood pumping
- eating regular meals
Because stress can worsen feelings of anxiety and depression, you might benefit from learning healthy ways to cope with stress. This can include activities like meditation, journaling, and deep breathing exercises.
Socializing can be difficult when you have anxiety or depression.
Some disorders, such as social anxiety disorder or major depression, can cause you to withdraw socially. However, try to maintain relationships with supportive loved ones. Speaking openly about your experiences — and asking for help — might help you feel comforted.
Support groups can also be helpful. You might be able to find an online support group or a local, in-person support group that is relevant to your situation. For example, a grief support group could be helpful if you’ve recently had a death of a loved one.
Can you have anxiety and depression at the same time?
Although the symptoms of anxiety disorders differ from the symptoms of depressive disorders, it’s possible to have both at the same time.
Is anxiety a kind of depression?
No. However, people who have depressive disorders might also experience anxiety.
Similarly, untreated anxiety can worsen feelings of depression, and vice versa. For example, social anxiety might lead to social withdrawal, which can cause symptoms of depression.
Can you have anxiety but not depression?
Yes. Many people have anxiety disorders but don’t experience symptoms of depression. To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you don’t need to feel depressed.
It’s common to feel anxious or depressed from time to time, especially if you’re going through a difficult life experience. But if the feeling persists, or if you think you might have an anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, it’s best to seek professional help.
The first step is to find a therapist. Talking to a therapist is a great way to process your emotions, learn positive coping skills, and create healthy patterns for how you think and act. You can read our articles on how to find mental health support and what to do if you can’t afford therapy.