The link between chronic stress and depression (and what you can do about it)
What we feel and think affects our physiological health and our ability to stay healthy. And conversely, the state of your physical health affects your mental health. The nervous, endocrine, and immune systems of our bodies are interlinked. Chronic (long-term) stress has an immunosuppressant effect and creates inflammation in the body. Inflammation can create depression. And depression can create inflammation. But there is a lot we can do to manage our stress reaction through lifestyle changes. Read on to find out more about the link between chronic stress and depression.
‘Good’ stress versus distress
Stress gets a bad rap. A stressor is any demand on you that requires change or adaptation. So getting out of your comfy bed in the morning is a stressor. So is performing a deadlift in your gym session. When we typically say ‘stress’, what we actually mean is DIS-tress. Distress is when we can’t meet the requirement for change. Distress comes in many forms:
- Psychological distress: intrusive thoughts, negative beliefs, financial burden, caring for family members, losing your job, intrusive environmental noise; and for 2020 let’s add bushfires, flash floods, and Covid-19 to that list. You get the picture.
- Social distress: social isolation, bullying, rejection, relationship breakdowns, etc.
- Physical distress: long working hours, working night shifts, insomnia, injury, pain, disease, and more.
Your body ‘thinks’ and remembers
Once thought confined to the brain, neuropeptides, a type of chemical messenger in the nervous system, can cross the blood-brain barrier and travel throughout the body. This means that cells of ‘thought’ and memory are found throughout your body. The ‘mind’ is not confined to the brain. Your body thinks and remembers.
As neuroscientist Candace Pert said: “The mind is not confined to the space above your neck”.
Thoughts, emotions, and your immune system
An area of science called Psychoneuroimmunology is devoted to studying the link between the nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. The links between these three systems are firmly established on a systemic, cellular, and molecular level. The chemical messenger cells of these three systems ‘talk’ to each other.
Our thoughts (generated in the nervous system), our emotions (the endocrine system), and our health and ability to fight disease (the immune system) all impact each other.
How does chronic stress affect your physical and mental health?
Our nervous system sends out the same chemical messengers for a physical, emotional, social, or psychological stressor.
The way we react to a stressor depends on our personality, past experiences, beliefs, values, and the amount of social support we have. For example, an international student who has no family in Australia and who has just been made redundant from their job may have a more heightened stress response to this financial stressor than someone who lives at home with their family and can access Centrelink payments.
Short versus long-term Stress
Our nervous system has evolved to deal with an acute (short-term) period of stress and then return our body to homeostasis (balance). It has not evolved to deal with chronic (long-term) distress.
Cortisol, a chemical messenger from the endocrine system, is supposed to help return our body to homeostasis after the stressful event has passed. However, in long-term distress, cortisol is still being released and this has a pro-inflammatory effect on the body. And inflammation causes depression.
Chronic stress, inflammation, and depression
Chronic psychological, social, or physical stress are immunosuppressants. The nervous system tells the endocrine system to keep pumping out Cortisol, which creates inflammation in the body and this in turn creates depression.
This goes both ways: depression can create inflammation in the body. And inflammation can create depression.
Psychological and emotional stress impacts your physical health
Psychological factors (memories, thoughts, beliefs, values, and attitudes) and emotions can affect your body’s ability to deal with the onset, incidence, progression of disease, and your reaction to the treatment. For example, we know that healing from disease or wounds are compromised by depression and distress.
Physical distress impacts your psychological and emotional health
Equally, physical distress e.g. chronic pain, physical immobility, inflammation can influence our mental health. For example, people with chronic pain are likely to have depression. As are people with chronic inflammatory illnesses such as bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune diseases.
What can we do about this? Take a holistic approach to your mental health
Take a holistic approach to mental health by looking at the big picture. Lifestyle changes can make a big impact on your stress response, homeostasis, immune system, and mental health both directly and indirectly (because of these three interlinked systems).
We can make lifestyle changes that increase our ability to manage our distress. And in doing so, decrease the level of inflammation in our bodies. Here are some suggestions:
1.See holistic and complementary practitioners
See an integrative GP and/or a complementary therapist such as a naturopath who will look at the WHOLE of your lifestyle, not just one area. Don’t rely on just one person – get yourself a TEAM.
Exercise has been proven without a doubt to have a beneficial effect on your brain and improve mental health. I know it’s hard when you lack motivation or energy – so start small and rope in a friend to help motivate you. (I’ve got a friend called Susan who does this for me. I think everyone needs a Susan!)
So do more movement: sports, running, yoga, dance, PT, tai chi. Don’t think of it as ‘exercise’ if that’s a word you find torturous. Reframe it as just ‘movement’. Do whatever floats your boat – but move your body!
3. Diet and nutrition
Make better diet and nutrition choices to reduce inflammation.
4. Get Social and emotional support
Increase social supports and interaction. Take action against social isolation, exclusion, bullying, and rejection.
Get counselling, psychotherapy or psychological support.
Want to come and see me? I offer a free 20-minute discovery phone call for new clients. You can book that here.
5. Prioritize relaxation and deep breathing to calm your nervous system.
Use relaxation techniques and diaphragmatic breathing exercises to control your nervous system response to stressors.
The Australian Government recognizes the benefit of diaphragmatic breathing exercises and relaxation techniques as mental health interventions. You can find out more here.
I’ve created a short online course “Finding calm in 7 days” full of deep breathing and movement techniques designed to calm your nervous system. There’s a special launch price of just $29 (worth over $260). Find out more here or click the image below.
I hope that this helps you understand the link between chronic stress and depression (and what you can do about it).
Until we speak again,