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Anxiety and depression are two very similar mental health disorders—so similar, in fact, that the average person may mistake the symptoms of one for the symptoms of another.
Anxious people tend to worry, and often, one of the main worries from ongoing (and exhausting) anxiety is whether it could lead to depression.
Is that how this works? Well, maybe.
The medical community still has a lot of unanswered questions about the nature of both of these mental health disorders, but we do know some key facts that suggest a link between anxiety and depression.
We’ll get into that momentarily, but first, we need to take you to school on the basics.
Depression, put simply, is a mood disorder — just like anxiety.
Clinical depression is defined by ongoing patterns of sad, empty and down feelings and an overall depressed mood that affect your ability to function day to day in doing the things you need or want to do.
There are several, including Major Depressive Disorder or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which affects people in the colder, drearier winter months.
Long-term depression is called persistent depressive disorder, and it can last two years or longer.
On the other end of the spectrum, major depression is a more intense but shorter period of depression of at least two weeks of depression side effects.
Symptoms of depression include:
loss of interest in daily life
exhaustion or low mood
low self esteem
reckless behavior or substance abuse
feelings of sadness or worthlessness
physical symptoms such as weight gain or loss
Biological, genetic, psychological and environmental factors can all theoretically trigger depression, though scientists still aren’t positive about what, exactly, causes depression.
By contrast, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is a group of mood disorders that collectively share symptoms, including intense feelings of anxiety, unease or panic.
Symptoms of anxiety are typically felt most days for at least six months for a diagnosis to be appropriate — one bad day does not constitute an anxiety problem.
Fatigue, irritability, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping and restlessness are all anxiety symptoms, as is feeling on edge or wound-up, or difficulty concentrating or uncontrollable worry.
You can check out our article on anxiety vs depression for more clarity on their differences.
So, can one mood disorder cause another? The short answer is: it’s entirely possible.
Here are some numbers to consider.
Between 10 percent and 20 percent of adults in a 12-month period visit their healthcare provider for depression or anxiety-related issues, according to the US National Library of Medicine.
Of those people, more than half suffer from comorbidity—a co-occurring disorder—of the other option.
In other words, half of the people seeking help for anxiety may have depression, and half of the people seeking help for depression may have anxiety.
What we don’t know is whether one tends to lead to another more frequently. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg problem—research is still in its early years in trying to determine whether one tends to cause the other.
Unfortunately, one thing we do know is that patients with both depression and anxiety tend to have a more severe set of symptoms.
And the presence of both disorders not only slows the recovery rate, but tends to lead to more frequent recurrence of one or both disorders once patients have healed.
So, to conclude: though we don’t know everything, what we do know is that having both is worse than having just one. And left untreated, each mental illness could get worse.
Happily (and here’s the good news), there are medications that are effective at treating both disorders simultaneously.
Treatment for depression will typically include antidepressants which, according to the US National Library of Medicine, work to alleviate symptoms by balancing the serotonin levels in your brain. This gives your brain the tools it needs to regulate your moods.
Conveniently, the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care says that the go-to solution for treating anxiety these days is actually prescription antidepressants, which can frequently offer anti-anxiety benefits, on- or off-label.
The default prescription tends to be a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.
Other antidepressant medications are generally only considered if SSRIs fail to work for a specific patient. SSRIs alternatives may include:
A cousin of SSRIs, another treatment for depression and anxiety are SNRIs, which regulate a brain chemical called norepinephrine, which is both a neurotransmitter and a stress hormone.
Pregabalin is primarily used to treat nerve pain, but it’s also sometimes used off-label in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder.
Benzodiazepines are sedatives that relieve anxiety symptoms but aren’t effective treatments for the chemical imbalance itself.
They’re effective, but dependency risk dramatically increases after just a few weeks.
Pills aren’t the only way out of the anxiety or depression holes. In fact, they’re only part of the big-picture solution.
Depression can be treated with support groups, including medication, lifestyle modifications to reduce stressors, relaxation techniques and various forms of psychotherapy.
Therapy isn’t a cure for mood disorders, but it does create a foundation for talking about the anxious and depressive symptoms and building a plan for coping with them.
According to the BMJ, CBT helps mental disorder sufferers to recognize bad thinking patterns that may let anxiety or depression stay in the driver’s seat when you want control back.
Our guide to coping with anxiety explores treatment options on the market today, but for now, there are a few we’d like to highlight, including therapy.
A healthcare professional may also consider lifestyle, career or relationship effects, and suggest changes for things that may be contributing to issues for you.
You may also be asked to address medical conditions or health problems, behavioral health, diet, exercise and substance abuse to alleviate symptoms.
People dealing with depression and anxiety know these are hard mental health conditions to live with, and they’re certainly not easy to treat. But that treatment and coping gets profoundly easier when you take the proper first step, and enlist the help of a healthcare professional to guide your treatment.
A mental health professional will be able to do more than prescribe medications. They’ll be able to recommend other effective treatments, assess comorbidities that may be exacerbating your conditions and make referrals to specialists like therapists.
If you’re taking recommendations, let us make another one: talk to someone.
Anxiety and depression can both feel helpless and overwhelming. Eventually, people can begin to accept that it won’t get better. But it can — with the proper help.
Get the help you deserve now; consider scheduling a psychiatry consultation today, or if you’re not ready for that, check out our online therapy offering.
Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.
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