Don’t Let Unchecked Stress Slide into Anxiety or Depression

By: Clinical Psychologist, Emma Spencer FAPS

It’s undeniable that we live in a fast-paced world where stress is a common experience for many people. It’s typical to experience some occasional stress in life. However, chronic and severe stress can lead to serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Understanding the connection between stress and these conditions is crucial for maintaining mental health and preventing more severe consequences.

The Connection Between Stress, Depression and Anxiety

Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released by our limbic system in response to stress. Whilst being very helpful in short bursts, these hormones can remain elevated because of chronic stress. This can then lead to various health problems. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can disrupt almost every system in the body, increasing the risk of depression. People experiencing chronic stress may find themselves feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and unable to cope, which are key factors that contribute to depression.

The hormones named above, are associated with our fight and flight response, the key response underlying anxiety. Ongoing exposure to these hormones again increases our risk of experiencing symptoms of anxiety particularly related to muscle tension, increased heart rate and panic.

Changes in the Brain and Brain Response to Stress

Chronic stress can lead to significant changes in the brain. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can reduce the size of the hippocampus, which is crucial for memory and learning. It can also increase the size of the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, leading to heightened anxiety and vulnerability to developing ongoing anxiety disorders. Additionally, stress can affect the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions like decision-making, attention, and self-control. These changes can create a vicious cycle, making it harder to cope with stress and increasing the risk of anxiety and depression.

Key Symptoms of Stress

Recognizing the symptoms of stress is crucial for managing it effectively and preventing it from leading to more severe mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Stress manifests in various ways, affecting both the mind and body. Key symptoms include:

  1. Physical symptoms: headaches, fatigue, muscle tension, stomach issues, sweating and heart palpitations
  2. Emotional symptoms: anxiety, irritability, depression, overwhelm, sadness, mood swings
  3. Cognitive symptoms: negative thinking, difficulty with decision making, mental fog, memory difficulties
  4. Behavioural symptoms: increased or decreased eating and sleeping, avoiding places, activities and responsibilities, substance use, restlessness
  5. Social symptoms: withdrawing from friends, family and activities; increased conflict with others, reduced pleasure in activities.

Tips for Managing Stress and Preventing Depression and Anxiety

Managing stress effectively is key to preventing it from developing into anxiety or depression. Here are some tips to help manage stress:

  • Techniques like mindfulness and meditation can help reduce stress by promoting relaxation and improving emotional regulation.
  • Physical activity is a natural stress reliever. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week.
  • Eating a balanced diet can improve your overall well-being and help your body manage stress better.
  • Prioritize sleep and establish a regular sleep schedule to ensure you get enough rest.
  • Social support is vital for managing stress. Make time for friends and family, and don’t hesitate to reach out for support when needed.
  • Setting boundaries and not overcommitting yourself can help reduce stress levels.
  • Seek help from a mental health professional.

If you or someone you know is struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression, at a level that is impacting their quality of life it’s essential to seek help. Spencer Health offers comprehensive mental health services, including psychological therapy and ADHD coaching. Our team of experienced psychologists can assist with developing personalized strategies to manage stress, provide therapy for depression and anxiety, and offer mindfulness techniques to improve overall mental well-being. Please don’t hesitate to reach out