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Reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Whether it’s something relatively small, like running late for work or scrambling to meet a deadline, or something much bigger, like a serious health scare, going through a divorce or the potential of losing the roof over your head, stressors are one of those unwelcome — yet unavoidable — realities of daily life that affect us all at some point or another.
And while stress can sometimes be a good thing that pushes us forward, both stress and depression are two common mental health issues that affect millions of people around the world.
But what’s the relationship between stress and depression? Can stress cause depression? If so, what are some ways to decrease stress?The silver lining here is that the causes of stress and depression have been widely studied and, as a result, there are ways to overcome them.
But first, let’s break down what stress and depression are to understand not only what they have in common, but what makes them different.
When we talk about stress, it helps to start with the concept that each of us has within us an intricate system of checks and balances that helps us to maintain equilibrium.
When that system is challenged with internal or external forces — either real or perceived — that threaten this equilibrium, we call these forces “stressors.”
Keeping this in mind, this research defines stress as, “a state of disharmony [that] is counteracted by an intricate repertoire of physiologic and behavioral responses which aim to maintain/reestablish the threatened homeostasis.”
In other words, when we encounter something in our daily lives that threatens to throw off our mental and physical balance, our body reacts to maintain that balance.
Now that we understand a little more about stress and where it comes from, let’s dig a little deeper into how depression is defined.
Depression is defined as a mood disorder that causes a continual feeling of sadness, detachment and disinterest.
Classifications that range from mild depression to major depression can include major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder and depressive disorders caused by a medical condition.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression — including major depression — is a pervasive public health issue worldwide that is also a risk factor for suicide.
Some of the telltale signs of depressive disorders include — but are not limited to — emptiness or irritable mood, and can sometimes be accompanied by physical and emotional changes that significantly affect a person’s ability to function.
While depression can’t be narrowed down to one core cause, it’s believed that genetic factors in combination with external stressors — like difficult and painful life events — are associated with the onset of depression.
While the physiopathology of major depressive disorder is unclear, there is evidence that suggests that the brain plays a central role in the development of depression.
In addition, more focus is being placed on the effects of psychological stress on depression, and so far suggests that psychological stress is one of the most important factors involved in the physiopathology of this disorder.
Now that we know that chronic stress can indeed lead to depression and that there’s most certainly a relationship between stress and depression, let’s get to work on uncovering ways to manage the effects of stress.
According to this study, strong support exists for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety disorder, anger control issues and general stress.
In a study of the effects of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults 18 years and over, results showed that this type of breathing exercise may decrease the effects of stress.
It has been shown that aerobic exercises like running, cycling, swimming and even walking, gardening and dancing can reduce anxiety and depression.
Research also goes on to list health benefits from regular exercise that include improved sleep, stress relief and improvement in mood.
It has been shown that maintaining balanced nutrition can have a positive impact on our model of thinking and our behavior, since the foods we eat affect cognitive function, memory and emotions.
This review of research even suggests that certain nutrients are a component of nutritional strategies to fight major depressive disorder.
There are numerous medications and antidepressant drugs available to help manage the effects of stress, anxiety disorders and even symptoms of depression. These include, but are not limited to:
With so many options available, it can be tough to know which one will be right to treat your level of stress or stress-induced depression, which is why it’s always best to work with a mental health professional to get a proper diagnosis.
We talk more about antidepressants and antidepressant effects in our Full List of Antidepressants.
So what have we learned? Well, we’ve learned that chronic stress can indeed lead to depression but that doesn’t mean it necessarily has to lead to major depression, as there are many ways to manage your level of stress.
From antidepressant drugs and psychiatry to online support groups and online counseling, emotional stress does not have to run your daily life. It’s important to remember that suffering from stress and depression is extremely common and the stigmas attached to mental health and wellness are becoming a thing of the past.
So, if you’ve recently experienced some stressful life events or think you may be suffering from mild depression, major depression or a depressive disorder, or if you’re suffering from symptoms of depression, it’s always best to speak with a mental health professional to get a proper diagnosis and to get the help that you need.
Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.