I have seen firsthand the link between anxiety and depression. The possibility for the chronically anxious person to become depressed is real, and the reasons can be compelling.
The anxious state is like living on red alert. The mind and the body are in a heightened condition all the time. However, unlike the temporary thrill of a roller coaster, this ride never ends. Any relatively stable stretch only provides time to ramp up for the next neck-bending climb and heart-pounding fall. The cycle keeps repeating itself over and over.
For some people, there comes a point when it all becomes too much; they just want to shut down. But if you can’t get off and the ride never ends, the only alternative is to stop reacting to the ride. Unfortunately, the ride is their life. By checking out of the anxiety, they are checking out of life. Depression becomes a way to numb themselves, to check out, to experience relief from the chaos.
How Anxiety Leads to Depression
When the body and the mind are overstressed and taxed to the maximum by circumstances, such as ongoing anxiety, depression is a very real possibility. This is not a conditional crisis brought on by a single event or situation but a chronic crisis state brought on by the ongoing demands of anxiety.
In some people, when their coping and caring mechanisms are depleted, they shut down into depression. Depression begins as a coping mechanism for anxiety but becomes intertwined with and strengthened by the anxiety. Both are fueled by feelings of helplessness to overcome and hopelessness of things ever getting better.
One woman I worked with put it this way:
“When I first started feeling depressed, frankly, I was relieved. I just reached a point where, if all I could feel was panic, I would rather not feel anything at all.”
At first, she welcomed the shroud of depression as an acceptable antidote to the hyper state of her panic. The weight of her depression, however, was not enough to tamp down her feelings of panic and anxiety indefinitely. Those stabs of sheer terror and worry began to find cracks in her numbed facade, only now she felt less able to handle them, struggling as she was with her depression as well.
Even in the panic, she’d been able to experience brief moments of enjoyment and pleasure. With the depression, those were gone. It didn’t take long for the anxiety and panic attacks to become even more pronounced, as her resiliency faded with the depression. Despair was now a constant companion, compounded by the failure of various medications.
“If my family hadn’t intervened and demanded I get help, I could have so easily decided to end things altogether.”
How Depression Leads to Anxiety
I have also seen the reverse, where depression occurs first, followed by anxiety in the form of panic attacks.
It’s as if depression has leached out all hope, joy, and optimism from a person’s life. Denuded of these life-affirming characteristics, the person becomes vulnerable to an anxiety attack. When the assault takes place, the person has no emotional stability to assist in placing the experience in proper perspective.
A single, transitory fear, worry, or concern blossoms into a full-blown panic attack. Once that possibility, that potential, is activated, a new paradigm is created. Panic-once means panic-possible, forever. This kind of helpless feeling is in perfect harmony with the bleak outlook of depression.
Whether anxiety or depression occurs first, when combined, both will tell you things can never get any better, that you are helpless to effect positive change. They can appear like twin juggernauts, barreling down and flattening your life and your ability to experience relief. When these two are joined together, they create an even higher threshold for recovery.