By Wesley Gallagher

Life is stressful. It’s OK to acknowledge that. Whether it’s periodic stress related to the holidays and special occasions, ongoing stress like a demanding job or an acutely stressful situation like a sudden illness or a serious family issue, stress is virtually impossible to avoid.

Untangling the brainEveryone deals with stress differently: Some thrive off of it, while others do what they can just to survive it. And that’s OK – managing stress and getting through it to the other side is all that really matters in the end.

When stress is experienced over a long time or poorly managed, however, it can lead to negative health consequences, including depression. In fact, stress and depression affect our brains and bodies similarly, and the relationship between the two is closer than you might think.

So What Is Stress?

According to Stress.org, Hans Seyle, the man who coined the term “stress,” originally defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” This definition was questioned, challenged and changed so much that in his later years, his definition became simply, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.”1

Surely you can relate to this statement. We all know what stress is, but it comes in so many forms and functions that it’s hard to pinpoint an exact definition.

In fact, although stress is often viewed negatively, some stress can actually be good for you. Up to a point, increased stress boosts productivity. However, there is a threshold at which this motivation ceases and a state of distress begins. If you think of stress as a hill, the way up is productivity, but once you reach the peak of the hill, the descent into distress begins. And every person’s peak is different.1

Once you reach that peak where stress stops being beneficial (or experience stress that starts at the peak), you run the risk of several negative effects. Short-term and long-term effects are actually comparable to those of depression, and stressful experiences can even lead to depression.

How Are Stress and Depression Linked?

While stress and depression are not synonymous, they share many similarities, and one can easily affect the other.

Symptoms common to stress and depression:

–       Irritability

–       Sleep issues

–       Trouble concentrating

–       Changes in appetite

–       Lowered mood

These resemblances aren’t merely coincidence. Studies have shown that stress and depression affect our brains in identical ways. WebMD states that sustained or chronic stress, in particular, leads to elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and reduced levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are linked to depression. These brain chemicals regulate functions like sleep, appetite and energy, and when the stress response fails to reset and chemicals remain unbalanced, depression can ensue.2

According to Psych Today, stress also has direct effects on mood, which can cause people to stop using healthy coping strategies to keep it elevated. This in turn leads to even more mood problems. These changes in mood, initially brought on by stress, often lead to further stress, and the cycle continues.3 It’s easy to see how this cycle can eventually lead to depression.

The results of rat studies published in ScienceNordic show how stress reduces the brain’s ability to keep itself healthy, which actually causes the hippocampus to shrink. Rats were used because scientists were able to document that they respond to stress the same way humans do. After long periods of stress, many of the rats showed depression symptoms, such as poor sleep patterns, reduced learning and memory and the inability to feel joy. The stressed rats’ brains produced 20 percent fewer new brain cells than healthy rats, which is regarded as an important cause of depression.4

Stressed or Depressed?

While stress and depression share parallel symptoms and effects on our bodies, there are important differences between the two. If you’ve been stressed and start to feel hopeless, or like you have no power over your circumstances, this could mean you’re sliding into a depressed state. While stress usually makes you feel geared up (which is why it can be such a powerful motivator), depression makes you sluggish and unable to perform normal activities. Stress is usually something that fades with time, but depression leaves you feeling stuck. And medical help may be necessary to come out of it.

Scientists aren’t sure why, but some people are more likely than others to become depressed when they experience stress. According to ScienceNordic, people who are more easily stressed are more likely to become depressed, and genetics, disturbances in early brain development and serotonin uptake play roles in the development of depression as well.4

If you’ve experienced depression in the past, you’re also more susceptible as a result of stress. Make sure you are taking care of yourself, and look out for signs that you might be headed toward depression.

How to Prevent Stress From Turning into Depression

You can take steps to reduce stress levels and boost your resilience to stressful experiences, thereby reducing your risk of depression.

WebMD recommends the following lifestyle changes to keep stress from making you depressed:

  • Try to get a half-hour of moderate exercise five days a week. Physical activity produces mood-boosting chemicals and hormones in the body that can help reduce stress and elevate mood.
  • Build strong, healthy relationships to reduce isolation, which is a major risk factor for depression.
  • Try yoga, meditation, prayer or psychotherapy, all of which can have a positive effect on emotional circuits in the brain.
  • Eat a healthy diet, and reduce alcohol consumption, as it is a mood suppressor, and people who are stressed are at greater risk for over-consumption.
  • Make time to do things you enjoy. Schedule downtime or pursue a hobby. Vacations have been shown to reduce stress as well.
  • Get adequate sleep, especially during stressful times.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you reframe events in a more positive manner. Negativity and worry can increase the impact of stress, and especially if you’re prone to depression, therapy may be a vital step in remaining healthy.2

Whether it’s stress or depression you’re experiencing, the most important thing is to take care of yourself, take necessary precautions and get the help you need to stay healthy.


Sources

1What Is Stress?” The American Association of Stress. Accessed January 14, 2018.

2 Bruno, Karen. “Stress And Depression.” WebMD, April 12, 2011.

3 Boyes, Alice. “Why Stress Turns Into Depression.” Psychology Today, March 7, 2013.

4 Hildebrandt, Sybille. “How Stress Can Cause Depression.ScienceNordic, February 6, 2012.