New Study Shows What Happens To Your Brain When You’re Anxious And Depressed – Forbes

Neuroscientists have continued delving into the relationship between the brain and mental illness to offer hope to those who suffer. On a global level, depression is the most prevalent and disabling psychiatric disorder—affecting approximately 4.4% of the population—with anxiety the second most prevalent psychiatric disorder, according to the World Health Organization. Depression costs employers an estimated $44 billion each year in lost productivity. About half of employees with depression are untreated. Anxiety in the workplace affects some 40 million Americans, and research shows it can decrease job performance. One of the worst results is missing deadlines. In one study, 55% of employees surveyed said they experienced anxiety about deadlines, which may even contribute to missing them altogether. The coexistence of depression and anxiety has been linked to poorer health outcomes, more severe symptoms, inadequate job performance and higher levels of suicidal thoughts.

New Research

A new study from Australian National University examined the coexistence of anxiety and depression. Over time the pairing had a profound effect on brain areas associated with memory and emotional processing (the hippocampus). The study, published in The Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, observed people with depression and anxiety to learn the simultaneous effects of both disorders on the brain. The researchers examined 10,000 people and found those with depression alone had lower brain volumes, especially in the hippocampus. According to the study’s authors, this becomes even more relevant later in life because a smaller hippocampus is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and may accelerate the development of dementia. The second finding revealed that when both anxiety and depression occur together, no shrinkage appeared to the hippocampus, and the amygdala—the part of the brain linked to emotions—increased in size.

What does this combined impact on the brain mean? The research team surmised that the pairing of anxiety and depression indicates that anxiety lowers the effects of depression on brain volume size by 3%. They concluded that the over activity of anxiety causes the brain to make more connections and thus becomes larger. But this is not good news according to the researchers, because the presence of anxiety along with depression and the enlargement can mask the shrinking effects of depression.

The findings that the brain gets bigger if you’re both anxious and depressed also implies that the actual effect of depression on brain shrinkage has been underestimated because of the opposite masking effect in the amygdala. The investigators emphasized the need for future studies that examine anxiety coexistence as a means to better understand the independent role of each disorder in brain structure. The findings further highlight the need for effective treatments to improve long-term mental health and prevent additive disorders later in life.

Climb The Career Ladder Without Anxiety And Depression

With proper treatment, employees with anxiety and depression get better. There are steps you can take to manage job stress. If you’re a manager, the key is to help employees access effective care. If you’re someone having anxiety and depression seek help from your employer or some of the resources below. Meanwhile, self-care is the most important action you can take. Putting on the brakes and temporarily stepping away from work refills your dwindling reservoir, replenishes your mojo and provides an incubation period for embryonic work ideas to hatch. In those moments that might seem empty and needless, strategies and solutions that have been there all along in some embryonic form are given space to come to life.

During the workday when you get caught in the stress of the moment, step back, take a breath and chill. Achieving balance between the gas (doing your job) and brakes (being in the moment) is a never-ending dance. Especially in our culture where doing is more valued than being where you’re taught to believe that the more you do, the greater your worth. Some employers will make unreasonable demands. Life won’t always go your way, hardships and obstacles will occur and family obligations will challenge you. At times it might even seem like the world is conspiring against you. But it isn’t. You’re simply experiencing life on its own terms, not yours.

Learn To Still Your Mind

What if you made a to-be list alongside your to-do list? What would you put on it? Meditating a minimum of 5 minutes a day is at the top of my to-be list. If you were to start your list now, you might jot down elbowroom to stretch and deep breathe between appointments, time to walk around the block and clear your head. Or meditate, pray, practice chair yoga at your desk, watch the grass grow or just contemplate the universe. The more you practice stilling your hurried mind and centering on the quiet places within you, the more you can access a calm state even in times of upheaval. When you’re peaceful and centered, your heart and respiratory rates slow down. Muscles loosen. Your mind is open and clear, actions are reflective and balanced and you’re more productive. Just 5 minutes of “chill time” can offset the effects of stress. You’re mindfully present in each moment where your busy life coexists with idle moments without imperatives, nothing to rush to, fix or accomplish. After applying the brakes and doing something for nothing more than the sheer pleasure of it, you’re ready to go again. Then watch your resilience, creativity and productivity soar and stress lift like steam off a hot summer street after a rain shower.


If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Contact Mental Health America to find resources closest to you or call 800-273-8255, a 24 hour crisis center. Contact the Anxiety And Depression Association of America for more information on prevention, treatment and symptoms of anxiety, depression and related conditions (2540-485-1001). You can also call 800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746 at the SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline. Trained crisis workers will listen to you and direct you to the resources you need. In an emergency, call 911 or contact a local hospital or mental health facility.


Oyarce, D. E., et al. (2020). Volumetric brain differences in clinical depression in association with anxiety: a systematic review with meta-analysis, Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1503/jpn.190156

World Health Organization. (2017). Depression and other common mental disorders: global health estimates. Geneva: World Health Organization.


Leave a Comment


Table of Contents