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Anxiety Versus Depression

Anxiety and depression are closely related, and many people struggle with both.  Yet research shows that the two experiences are not the same.


When we are anxious, we feel as if negative events may occur at some point in the future.  Our sense of control is shaky but not entirely absent, which makes us highly inclined to engage in avoidance (i.e., doing something instead of just sitting there).


In contrast, depressed people feel as if negative events have already occurred, and there is nothing they can do about it.  The defining behavior of this helpless state is not avoidance.  Depression is a syndrome of withdrawal.


Depressive withdrawal creates great problems for modern human beings.  Yet as biologist Randolph Ness observed, the tendency to “do nothing where there is nothing useful to do” makes evolutionary sense:


Imagine a monkey that lives in a cave.  Every December, its territory becomes overrun with tigers.  And now it is November 1, so the monkey is currently anxious about the arrival of its feline neighbors.

“Soon there could be tigers everywhere, and I might not be able to collect enough bananas to last through the winter,” the anxious monkey thinks to itself.  “But maybe — just maybe — I can if I frantically scurry around!”

When December 1 arrives, however, the threats of the future are no longer potential.  They are here and happening now.  “Tigers are everywhere and there’s nothing I can do,” the depressed monkey concludes as it creeps back into its cave.  “I am helpless and hopeless.  Better lie low, keep out of trouble, and wait for brighter days.”


Dylan M. Kollman, PhD