Your guide to medications for anxiety and depression

Medications that treat anxiety and depression

Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health disorders in the United States. But did you know it’s common to have both depression and anxiety at the same time? Nearly 50% of people who are diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). 

If you or a loved one receive this dual diagnosis, you might wonder if that means double the treatment. Not necessarily—there are medications that treat both depression and anxiety. Your healthcare provider will work with you to determine the right treatment plan for your specific needs.

Can I have depression and anxiety at the same time? 

Depression and anxiety are two different mental health disorders that are often comorbid. Meaning, they occur at the same time. 

Depression is a mental disorder that is commonly identified with intense feelings of hopelessness, despair, worthlessness, and overwhelming sadness. Around 10% of Americans experience major depression (sometimes called major depressive disorder), according to the Cleveland Clinic. While most people will experience feelings of sadness at some point, with depression, these feelings are prolonged—lasting two weeks or more—and severe enough to impact daily life. 

Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive worry, nervousness, or fear that impacts everyday functioning. Without treatment, anxiety can get worse over time. There are a number of anxiety disorders, with their own set of unique symptoms.

About 2% of people in the U.S. have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). According to Richard Shelton, MD, a psychiatrist and the vice chair of research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, GAD symptoms include persistent fear and worry that is often difficult to control. Other anxiety disorders include:

  • Panic disorder (PD)
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
  • Phobias, such as vehophobia, or fear of driving
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Dr. Shelton says that diagnosing a patient with both depression and anxiety should be done carefully. “I would only give someone a comorbid anxiety disorder diagnosis if they had the anxiety problems before the start of the depression—or if they had a specific kind of anxiety, like anxiety attacks,” he says. He also added that, with this criteria in mind, around 40% of his patients receive both an anxiety disorder and depression diagnosis. 

There are similarities and differences between depression and anxiety disorders. “Both anxiety disorders and depression are characterized by feelings of distress,” says Dr. Shelton. However, anxiety itself is a broader concept that encompasses symptoms that are seen in a variety of mental illnesses, adds Dr. Shelton. Additionally, general feelings of anxiety can be a symptom of depression, but depression is not a symptom of anxiety. 

 Depression and anxiety have the following symptoms in common: feelings of despair like nothing good will ever happen, physical symptoms (including headache and stomach pain), and exhaustion.

People that are depressed typically experience low energy, low motivation, guilt, and suicidal thoughts—these factors distinguish depression from anxiety, says Dr. Shelton. Additionally, a patient with an anxiety disorder will typically experience persistent fear, become avoidant of situations, and experience heightened anxious thoughts and feelings. 

Treatment options for depression and anxiety

If you’re hesitant to take antidepressants for anxiety, there are plenty of different non-medical treatments for depression and anxiety. “Most of the effective treatments for both depression and anxiety that don’t involve medications are variations of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy,” Dr. Shelton says. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a treatment that involves changing your way of thinking as well as your behavioral patterns. Some CBT approaches include behavioral activation and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. 

Dr. Plummer says that an alternative treatment that some patients with depression and anxiety find helpful is cannabidiol (CBD), a component of cannabis that doesn’t create the “high” of typical marijuna use. “Many state that CBD is shown to have positive effects for depression and anxiety, but too much cannabis may be associated with panic attacks,” she advises. She also warns that this is not an FDA-approved treatment.

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