Exploring the links between stress, anxiety, and depression
Stress and mental illness
The stress response is unfortunately very familiar to modern people. We all know that when something bad happens, our brains flood our bodies with chemicals that would have been useful in the remote past, stimulating the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Useful for dealing with a hungry sabre-toothed tiger, but not so much if you’re facing an angry boss in the office.
MoodSurfing has looked at stress management and stress reduction strategies in the past, and we encourage everyone to learn meditation, breathing, and reframing strategies to help maintain mental clarity and mood balance. However, new research has found that in some people, the stress mechanism can get “stuck” so that cortisol, glucocorticoides, and other stress chemicals continue flooding into the system, even in the absence of specific stressors.
This constant, heightened stress has been implicated in several mental health problems, especially depression, and it is though that stress may underlie many of the physical symptoms of depression, like weight gain, hypertension and heart problems. So, managing stress is one of the most important things we can do for our overall health.
Neuroplasticity and wellness
Another concern related to the constant flood of stress-related chemicals in the system is that the brain’s neurons become overworked and may become exhausted and damaged. In normal situations, the brain responds to periods of stress with heightened attention, focus, alertness, heart rate, etc. but then is able to relax and replenish itself when the stressor is removed. However as the periods of stress get longer and the periods of relaxation get shorter, the neurons lose plasticity, and a growing body of evidence suggests that loss of neuroplasticity is key in depression. Restoring neuroplasticity will, therefore, be an important tool in the depression-fighting toolbox.
Stress, and what is stressful are very subjective. What stresses one person out may not be recognized by another as even negative, never mind stressful. “What have you got to be stressed about, just count your blessings” is not a helpful intervention. Secret fears, unrecognized allergies, childhood trauma… stress is caused by many things that may not be realized by onlookers. To manage stress and begin to restore neuroplasticity, Scottish psychologist Dr. Jim White offers three simple instructions to begin building a stress-free foundation:
- Face your fears. Don’t obsess over what could happen, just acknowledge to yourself that you are afraid of something, and face up to it.
- Be more active. Physical exercise has positive health effects on many levels, but it is especially meaningful in stress reduction.
- Watch what you drink. Alcohol may give a temporary “high” but it’s long-term effects are not helpful or healthful. Similarly, caffeine may stimulate the same parts of the brain that are stressed already. Be wary and watchful.
In sum, be mindful of what you are doing, what you are thinking, what you are eating and drinking, and how your body is responding to all of that. Health is within our reach!