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Welcome to my new series on the four roads out of anxiety and depression.
These are the two most common mental disorders in the world today, affecting hundreds of millions of individuals around the world.
So if you’re suffering from one or both of these disorders, you’re definitely not alone.
Before we talk about the four roads out, though, let’s talk about one of the main roads in.
Stress is a Main Road into Anxiety and Depression.
There’s a really important reason for starting here: If you and I understand one of the main ways into depression and anxiety, we stand a much better chance of navigating our way back out.
We all know what stress feels like. Stressors are the pressure points of life:
- in our jobs;
- finances; and
When stress levels get too high, they can push us into dark and scary places in our minds.
We see this on the road of life a lot: first we hit major life stress, and then we hit depression and anxiety.
But here’s my question: what happens in between?
Do we understand, on a scientific level, how stress so often leads to mental illness?
Yeah, we do, at least partly. As a brain researcher, I’ve been studying this for a long time now.
What I’ve learned is, stress leads to depression and anxiety in four steps.
Step 1: Some of us are more vulnerable than others.
First of all, you’ve probably noticed that while all of us get stressed, not all of us get depressed as a result. This is because some of us are more vulnerable than others, due to pre-existing factors in our lives.
Some of us are on a rockier road than others. We’re dealing with chronic stressors like
- medical illness;
- financial trouble; and
- relationship problems.
Some of us have also experienced severe stress or trauma before. When this happens and especially in early life (like childhood abuse), this sets the stage for depression and anxiety down the road.
Some of us are also driving in a more vulnerable vehicle. What I mean is, there are things about us personally that increase our depression or anxiety risk.
- our gender (women are more prone to depression than men);
- our genetics;
- medical issues like inflammation; and
- psychological or personality factors that darken our view of the world.
All these vulnerabilities can build and play off each other. Together, they create a precarious imbalance that can later tip the mind further into full-blown depression or anxiety.
All it might take is adding a little more weight to the scale.
Step 2: We get hit by more stress.
That weight often comes in the form of added stress.
Maybe we lose a relationship.
Or a job.
Or a home or possessions.
Maybe we even lose our health and safety.
Step 3: Our imbalanced brains react by releasing stress hormones.
Our brains are responsible for reacting to stress by releasing a flood of stress hormones.
Problem is, an imbalanced brain doesn’t know when to shut the hormones off again. So, the hormones just keep gushing into our bodies.
More importantly for what we’re talking about here, they also gush back into our minds.
Step 4: Stress hormones damage the brain, making the imbalance even worse.
Maybe you’ve noticed that, when you’re depressed or anxious, you can’t think very well.
This is because, if they stay high for too long, stress hormones can trash the “thinking” areas of the brain, shrinking up brain cells and blocking communication with other parts of the brain.
On the other hand, they swell up the “feeling” areas, making us feel even more stressed, sad and anxious than we were before.
So stress hormones damage the brain, making the imbalance even worse.
Notice that these steps create a vicious cycle:
- When we get exposed to more stress;
- our imbalanced brains release more stress hormones;
- which causes even more damage;
- which makes the imbalance all that much worse.
And this cycle can happen over and over again. So what starts out as a minor imbalance can get worse and worse, each time the cycle repeats itself.
This helps explain why even a minor stressor can sometimes push us into full-blown anxiety or depression.
The minor things of life can still trigger feelings of extreme fear, sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, and despair. Sometimes we feel all of these at the same time.
Ok. Now let’s focus on the best ways to get out of the loop.
One way is to treat the emotional crisis points at the end.
We often do this with medication, because anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs will help heal the brain areas involved and increase levels of brain chemicals that will make us feel better.
But another way is to treat the brain imbalance psychologically by re-training the mind to think about stress in a different way.
This is learning how to re-frame our life narrative.
Both treatments, which I call “Meds and Mind,” work because they attack the problem in different and complimentary ways.
The rest of this series, however, we’ll focus on the second: re-framing our life narrative. I hope you enjoy it.Become a Patron!
 Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.