Mental Health - Articles

Chronic Stress & Depression

by Judy Rushfeldt

Some stress is good for you. It motivates you to achieve a goal and embrace new challenges.

But too much negative stress can kill you. Literally. When the stresses are constant and intense, and you don’t give yourself adequate time to recover -- your body and brain pay the price.

Chronic stress may be the number one cause of depressed and anxious moods among adults. It is also the number one preventable cause of serious illnesses such as stroke and heart disease.

The cumulative effect of chronic stress is called “stress sensitization.”

Read Judy's new book, BREATHE: Burnout Symptoms, Prevention & Recovery - available here on Amazon

Stress Sensitization
Little by little, biochemical changes exhaust your adrenal glands and other hormones involved in the body’s stress response. Eventually, your body and brain react to minor everyday stresses the same way they would have responded to a major stress in the past. You might be running late for a meeting, but your body and brain react as if you were experiencing a major crisis.

Do you find yourself thinking: “Why do I get tired so easily? Why am I feeling so overwhelmed – this is really not a big deal. Why am I getting sick so often? Why does it take so little to make me irritable, or anxious and depressed? What’s changed?”

Depression & Adrenal Exhaustion

For some people, depression is a biological brain disorder.  But for many people, depression is a symptom, not a disease. The cause is adrenal exhaustion, often referred to as "burnout."

That’s one reason anti-depressants don’t help many people. Medication is necessary and effective for those with clinical depressionbut provide little or no relief for those with no brain disorder.

Your adrenal glands produce cortisol, DHEA and adrenalin. Chronic stress triggers serious imbalances with many symptoms.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue/ Burnout

  • Emotional or mental depression

  • Excessive nervousness and irritability

  • Cravings for stimulants – sweets, coffee or alcohol (note - alcohol is actually a depressant, but the intitial effects are typically stimulating as well as relaxing)

  • Cravings for salty foods

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Poor memory

  • Faintness or dizziness (especially when rising from a prostrate or sitting position)

  • Insomnia: trouble getting to sleep, waking up frequently, sometimes not being able to get back to sleep. Sleep is not restorative, leading to more exhaustion and depressed or anxious emotions during the day.

Adrenal fatigue is also worsened by hormone imbalances, food allergies, nutritional deficiencies, poor lifestyle habits and environmental toxins.


Stage 1: Alarm reaction

This is a normal response to a surprise, threat or major challenge. Adrenalin is released and your heart beats faster. The adrenal cortex is stimulated to produce more cortisol and other stress hormones. This mobilizes your energy and focus so you can respond quickly to the situation. When the threat passes, biochemical balance is restored.

Stage 2: Adaptation or Resistance
If the stressful situations are constant and intense over long periods of time, the body produces sustained high levels of adrenal hormones. Blood sugars also increase at times to try and respond to the on-going extra demands for energy.  At this stage, you will feel more driven and tired. You may experience some insomnia and drink more coffee to keep going, or more alcohol to relax. Anxiety and tension increase.

Stage 3: Exhaustion
Over time, the adrenal glands can no longer able to cope with the unrelenting and ever-increasing demands for cortisol. Gradually, cortisol production declines back to normal levels, then falls below normal -- but not so low as to raise red flags on blood tests.

You will experience gradually worsening mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. This is often accompanied by depressed, anxious or irritable moods. Most people suffer more frequent cold and flu viruses due to a depleted immune system. Insomnia worsens, either by not being able to fall asleep, or waking up frequently and not being able to go back to sleep. At this point you are at higher risk for serious illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and stroke.

At this point, many people visit their family doctor. Typically they are told to cut back on stress and prescribed an anti-depressant.  But if adrenal fatigue is causing the depression symptoms, other pro-active strategies are necessary for healing.

Read strategies for recovery



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