Young Adults’ Experiences of Depression in the U.S.

Depression and anxiety

Anxiety is common and can be a normal part of everyday life. However, it can also be long lasting and interfere with daily activities. Anxiety disorders are among the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions; about 30% of young adults age 18-29* have them. Depression and anxiety also often go together; 58% of people who have ever been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder also have an anxiety disorder*1. Sometimes, people with major depression have severe anxiety, but only when their depression is active. This summary focuses on the experiences people we interviewed described related to having both depression and anxiety. 

The relationship between depression and anxiety 

A number of people experienced their depression and anxiety as closely related. Many said they cycled between feelings they associated with depression and those they associated with anxiety. Ryan says he feels his anxiety causes his depression, and also that sometimes the hopelessness of his depression makes him feel anxious. Casey says the difference between his anxiety and his depression is that his anxiety “has not ever stopped me from doing anything” but depression is “like, I can’t do things”. Nadina describes how she notices certain behaviors when she is feeling anxious and different ones when she is feeling depressed.
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Other people talked about how feelings of depression and anxiety are hard to separate.
How anxiety feels 

A few young adults we spoke to described how anxiety felt physically for them. Crystal says she feels physical pain and describes it as, “anxiety takes over my whole body, my muscles hurt and I’m not really able to move… I personally get, my legs hurt sometimes, my abdomen hurts, my arm hurts, my shoulders hurt, I get, I can get large swollen lymph nodes sometimes”.

First understandings of anxiety 

Many people first experienced symptoms of anxiety when they were young, around age six or seven, before they were diagnosed with depression. A few reported first experiencing feeling nervous about starting school and having accompanying feelings of nausea. Marty described his anxiety as starting, “about the age of six or seven, being anxious about going to school and when I got there just being so nervous that I would end up running to the bathroom and throwing up, just because my anxiety would be kicking up so much”.
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Some people reported that they didn’t realize they had issues with anxiety until high school or college. Casey remembers discovering he had an anxiety disorder after reading about it. Natasha first discovered she had anxiety after receiving a diagnosis from a health center on campus. Before realizing she had anxiety, Crystal thought worrying about her family and future “was just my normal thought process”, but self-reflection led her to realize that she was suffering from anxiety.
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What triggers anxiety 

Specific situations trigger anxiety for many people - and school was described as a primary source. Many people said they suffer from test taking anxiety in particular.
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People also described tendencies to be a perfectionist or have very high expectations for themselves, and linked these feelings to anxiety. Cara said she “keeps raising the bar for myself”, and when she cannot reach her goals she feels a sense of inadequacy and insecurity. Leanna said when she is in a pessimistic state, “I’ll kind of just send myself [into] like a mental self-sabotage spiral of … self-doubt”. Natasha describes how being “overly stressed” triggers her anxiety and starts a “bad cycle”. 

Family issues and drug use also caused feelings of nervousness. For more about how family issues impact depression, see 'Depression and relationships'. For more about drug use, see 'Depression, substance use and abuse'. 

Social anxiety

Many people experienced feelings of anxiousness in social situations that they described as contributing to their depression. For some, this was related to meeting new people.
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Other young adults said avoiding social interactions contributed to their depression. Jacob would “chronically avoid social interaction” by avoiding parties or hanging out with friends. He says, “I was missing out on a lot of social opportunities that as human beings are necessary for us to be happy and fulfilled. And since I was deprived of those things, I felt like that’s, that’s probably a fairly significant cause of my depression.”

Panic attacks

A number of people we interviewed had experienced panic attacks as a symptom of their anxiety – attacks that felt “frightening” or “like I was losing my mind”. Casey said panic attacks tend to happen at times when he’s not doing well and feels like he’s not meeting his own expectations. Others said the fear of leaving their familiar home would lead to panic attacks. Panic disorders can be associated with increased suicidal thoughts and behavior*2. Leanna and Colin described how their thoughts of suicide triggered panic attacks.
Medication and skills to help cope with anxiety

People spoke about many different ways they coped with anxiety. Some used prescribed medication or drugs such as marijuana. (For more information see Depression, medication, and treatment choices’. For more information about substance use, see Depression, substance use and abuse.)

Using the arts such as painting or drawing helped others to calm down. 
Telling others about anxiety in contrast to depression

A few people said they felt their anxiety feelings were something they could discuss with others because “everyone knows what anxiety is”. Sara described that her mother thought with depression she “could just get out of bed” but with anxiety she should be on medication. 

Seeing a health professional for anxiety 

Several people said they saw a health professional such as a therapist to help manage their feelings of anxiety and to talk about their problems. Others received medication from a physician. Those suffering from social anxiety, however, found it particularly hard to reach out for help precisely because interactions with other people are so difficult.
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Anxiety and eating disorders

Some reported difficulties with eating when they felt anxious or depressed. For more about this topic, see ‘Depression and eating disorders’ and ‘Signs and symptoms of depression.’

Anxiety and self-harm

A few people felt a desire to harm themselves to relieve anxiety. (For more about self-harm see ‘Depression and self-harm’).

*”Behavioral Health in the United States, 2012”. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, n.d., 7 February 2016. 

*1 Kessler, Ronald C., et al. "Comorbidity of DSM-III—R major depressive disorder in the general population: Results from the US National Comorbidity Survey." The British Journal of Psychiatry (1996).

*2 Sareen, Jitender. "Anxiety disorders and risk for suicide: why such controversy?." Depression and anxiety 28.11 (2011): 941-945.

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