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Self-Esteem’s Unique Relationship to Anxiety and Depression

There is some evidence that self-esteem is somehow related to depression and anxiety. But the specifics of just how self-esteem affects depression and anxiety are unclear. For instance, does low self-esteem increase depression? If so, does high self-esteem protect from depression? Or does depression decrease self-esteem? And do these same dynamics work in the self-esteem/anxiety equation? These questions were what prompted Julia Friederike Sowislo of the Department of Psychology at the University of Basel in Switzerland to analyze 18 studies on anxiety and 77 on depression. She believed that negative affect, which can be highly influenced by self-esteem, could potentially be the mechanism by which self-esteem affects anxiety and depression.

Sowislo found that self-esteem had a significant effect on depression. In fact, studies revealed that decreased self-esteem increased the risk of depression far more than depression increased the risk of low-self-esteem. However, the anxiety studies revealed a different relationship. Low self-esteem was equally effective at raising the risk of anxiety as anxiety was at decreasing self-esteem. Sowislo believes that low self-esteem makes people vulnerable to depression through several channels, including intrapersonal and interpersonal. On the intrapersonal level, people with low self-esteem may ruminate and focus on negative thoughts more than high self-esteem individuals. This has been shown to raise vulnerability for depression. On the interpersonal level, depressed individuals may seek out negative feedback, which lowers their self-esteem. Or, individuals low in self-esteem may constantly seek reassurance and not receive it, thus increasing their feelings of depression.

Regardless of which direction this effect travels, it is clear that self-esteem is a key factor in the development and maintenance of depression. Therefore, Sowislo believes that interventions aimed at decreasing depressive symptoms should focus on increasing self-esteem. She also hopes that these findings underscore the importance of the effect of self-esteem on anxiety. Overall, the results provide some insight into these relationships. “The present research suggests that self-esteem shows diverging structural relations with depression and anxiety,” said Sowislo, adding, “As yet, drawing clinical recommendations from this affective specificity would be premature.” Future research could clarify the exact mechanisms that create this dynamic and provide clinicians with the information they need to develop specific treatments aimed at weakening this effect in individuals at risk for depression or anxiety.

Sowislo, Julia Friederike, and Ulrich Orth. Does low self-esteem predict depression and anxiety? A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin 139.1 (2013): 213-40. Print.

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  • Leave a Comment

    January 21st, 2013 at 11:54 PM

    Having seen how some people can get depressed or anxious for the same things that cause little effect in others,I can vouch for the fact that self esteem has a role to play in this.

    Never is this more obvious than when a team is criticized at the workplace.I have seen some of my own team members ruminate and spend excessive time focusing on the one criticism rather than on the various good reports we received.Maybe these people just have low self esteem.It would be great if they could be helped by ways to improve self esteem rather than to always look at reducing depression or anxiety as the solution.

  • Patricia

    January 22nd, 2013 at 4:02 AM

    I have found it so important from the time that my children were very little to do all that I can to boost their self esteem and give them ways to feel good about themselves.

    That has meant a whole lot of praise and encouragement from their dad and me, and we are okay with that. This makes them feel good about themselves and theur accomplishments, and I hope that it will help to establish a good stable field of mental health for them so that as they become adults they won’t have to feel the weight of depression like so many others have had to experience.

  • nidia

    January 22nd, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    while depression and anxiety spares no one, I do agree that having a healthy self-esteem can be a good barrier against them. being confident of oneself and placing a high value onto yourself works wonders to drive away the blues. so its no surprise really, and yes the clinicians should look at this as a new avenue for treatment of depression.

  • Lloyd

    January 22nd, 2013 at 12:26 PM

    Depression can be influenced by the level of self-esteem one has. But is this relationship true in all situations? I doubt.

    While being depressed due to a negative feedback you received about your work could be depressing and could be received differently by individuals with low and high self-esteem, some other situations, like a loss or sorrow, would causes the same depression in both sets of individuals. this is my theory, i do not know how far this is true. But from my own experience and observation this does seem like how it plays out. Any inputs?

  • Jim

    December 16th, 2013 at 2:03 PM

    In response to the last writer and his thoughts about loss and sorrow, I too believe grief (especially the loss of a significant other — spouse, child) would affect those with high and low self-esteem the same. I have lost my wife and struggle to deal with it longer than I think I should (2+ years) and yet I believe most of my life my self-esteem has been rather high. No one teaches college for 25 years (as I did), I would surmise, and not have quite a healthy ego as well as being an entrepreneurial magazine publisher. So I am quite perplexed why I have not recovered much of my previous high self-esteem.

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