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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Stress and Depression

Overcoming Depression

What about current stress? Can stress make us biologically sensitive to depression? The answer is yes – indeed, stress is probably the most common influence on our mood chemicals. Many depressions are triggered and maintained by stress, so it is worth spending a little more time exploring the connection here.

Now, stress can be, and has been, blamed for just about all our woes and difficulties. However, a connection between stress, how we handle it, and depression is now well documented. In fact, understanding the linkage between our thoughts, our behaviors and our stress systems is one insight that might help you really focus on changing the way you think. The Psychologist Richard Lazarus has done much to advance our understanding of how the meanings we give to things, and how we to try to cope, affect our stress systems and emotions. His book, called Stress and Emotions: A New Synthesis, published by Free Association Press in 1999, offers an excellent overview of this work for those who would like to read more on the subject.

Stress can be related to a lot of different psychological problems, including anxiety, irritability, fatigue and depression. The way we cope with stress, too, can give rise to different psychological problems. Some people under stress are able to recognize it and back off from what is stressful to them. Others, however, are not able to escape from things that are stressful; for example, if one is in a job or a relationship that is stressful, it may not be easy or simply walk away. Other ways of coping with stress may cause problems of their own: for example, drinking too much alcohol. But before we look at how our thoughts and coping efforts can make stress worse, let's explore what happens in the body when we are stressed.

The first thing to note is that over millions of years systems in the brain have evolved to help the body respond to threats. How do they work? Well, imagine you're walking home one night and someone jumps out on you. The body will fly into action. Your heart rate goes up, you breathe faster, and a knot tightens in your stomach, you start to sweat and you feel afraid. Notice how there is both a bodily response (heartbeat, sweating) and a psychological one (fear, wanting to run away). This is the body's defense systems working they are fairly automatic, and are geared to preparing you to run like hell or stand and fight. Now, there are many different types of stress that can mobilize the body and its defense systems: for example, hearing about a threat to your child, discovering you failed an important examination, believing you have a serious illness, or hearing that a lover you are keen on has left you. Lots of different types of threats and losses activate the defense and stress systems. Importantly, some threats, while serious (like someone jumping out on you) are short-lived (you run away). You may be shaken up for a while, but stress levels down. However, other threats – like failed exam, having a serious illness or ending a relationship – may have long-term implications.

So, we know that we have defense systems that will mobilize the body and certainly when we are under threat or have suffered a loss. And we know that some threats and losses are short-lived and pass, while others do not. Next, we need to think about how quickly our body detects a response to threats and losses, and how quickly the defense/stress systems will settle down again. Is depression a state in which the stress system has not settled down but is in a constant state of high or chronic arousal? Quite possibly; depression is often associated with long-term stress arousal.

Paul Gilbert - Overcoming Depression

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