Deppression and Anxiety? Disorders Of Emotion Or Cognition

When one is suffering from depression or anxiety, it is almost universally thought to be an emotional problem. But could it be that depression and anxiety are disorders of cognition rather emotion? Lauren B. Alloy of Temple University disputes the Barlow theory that these disorders are the result of spontaneous firings of primitive, basic, negative emotions. By this theory people whose body has a neurobiological overreaction to certain stimuli will be pushed into anxiety and possibly ultimately depression. The difference between anxiety and depression, they agree, is the degree of his or her psychological vulnerability, the severity of the current stressor, and the availability of coping mechanisms. Barlow believes that if coping mechanisms are available one may stay in the anxiety stage, but if not an individual may give up all hope, and is then clinically depressed.

Alloy contends however that response to stressors may actually be a cognitive issue. Alloy believes that behavioral responses are actually hard-wired, so it is your brain dictating to your body how to react to a given stress. She belies that panic attacks and bouts of sadness may actually be "normative reactions to negative appraisals (and sometimes misappraisals) of one's circumstances. As evidence Alloy points out that panic attacks and the like are actually very common in the general population, so are not specifically emotional disorders. By Alloy's theory it is a "maladaptive interpretation or appraisal of one's emotional reactions that is at the heart of the disorder.

This debate is relevant to teachers for several reasons. Teachers must understand what drives someone to sadness or depression in order to be able to address the problem. It is generally agreed that one of the main issues of anyone suffering from anxiety or depression is a feeling that they have no control over their present or future emotions, and thus their mental and physical safety. It is critical that teachers be able to tell the difference between anxiety and depression so that they know how best to respond. When someone is in the anxiety stage they will be much more open to certain resolutions like talking things out with a teacher or counselor, when they are in the depression stage the issue must be dealt with in a much more delicate way. Trying to convince a student in the state of depression that "everything will be okay" can even be counterproductive. What they want to hear and what kind of help they are seeking is very much dependent upon this fine line between anxiety and depression. While the Alloy article refers to the middle-ground as "mixed anxiety-depression syndrome" I think it would be more helpful for someone to look at it as being on a spectrum instead of being clearly one or the other or an even mix of both.

What should teachers be thinking about?

1. One hint is that if Alloy is right and the problem is cognitive, this disorder could have developed from previous life experience in which the person faced a disturbing lack of control (think about a child witnessing their parents divorce and feeling helpless to stop it). In this case, discussing the issue with the child's parent may make sense to search for an experience that may have led to this current depression.

2. Anxiety is more commonly proceeded by danger events (an attack, bullying, etc…), whereas depression is more commonly precipitated by "loss events" (losing a parent, sibling, etc…) .

3. Symptoms will often overlap. Teacher should generally be looking out for feelings of despair, suicidality, and psychomotor retardation in those seen as in a stage of hopelessness.


Alloy, Lauren B. "Depression and Anxiety: Disorders of Emotion or Conginiton?" Psychological Inquiry. Temple University. 1991, Vol. 2, No. 1, pg 72-76.