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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