Stress and Depression: I'm So Stressed-Out That It's Depressing

What is the relationship between stress and depression? You are probably aware that when you become stressed-out, you also tend to become more depressed.

There is much psychological research that confirms that there is a relationship between stress and depression. The relationship is not a simple one, however.

Keep in mind that experiencing depression symptoms is not necessarily the same as experiencing clinical depression. The depression symptoms are only considered clinical depression when they last and are severe enough that they interfere with your ability to function in some important area of your life.

Depression as an illness (clinical depression) seems to have a life of it's own. It usually starts because of a stressful situation, but then it continues independent of the stressful situation.

To read more about the difference between sadness and clinical depression, visit

Stress Contributes to Depression

Now back to the relationship between stress and depression.

It is true that stress contributes to depression symptoms such as sadness. Recent research has found many stressors to increase depression symptoms.

Some of the stress and depression research has focused on severe stressors. Stevan Hobfoll, Jacob Lomranz, Nitza Eyal, Angela Bridges and their associates (1989) interviewed 11,944 Israelis concerning their depressive mood eleven times between August 1979 and June 1984.

During this time period the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War took place. As you would expect, the beginning of the war triggered depression symptoms. But the depression symptoms decreased as the war continued.

Following the most intensive period of the war, depression symptoms were lower than after the start of the war. Thus, even with severe stressors, such as war, people adapt.

Other stress and depression research has focused on more common place, but still upsetting stressors. Jian Li Wang and B. Scott (2001) found that work stress was associated with major depression. Marital dissatisfaction was found to relate to major depression and dysthymia (a more chronic, milder form of depression) by Mark Whisman (1999).

Still other stress and depression research focused on mild stressors. By testing 439 fifth and sixth graders, Ruth Hilsman and Judy Garber (1995) found that receiving unacceptable grades on a report card can increase depression symptoms.

Other stressors which have been found to contribute to depression symptoms by the stress and depression research have included...

  • terrorist attacks

  • losing a spouse

  • losing a parent

  • losing a child

  • losing another family member

  • having a family member diagnosed with a serious illness

  • having to take care of an sick family member

  • family conflict

  • family violence

  • marital conflict

  • divorce

  • household changes

  • substance abuse stress

  • financial stress

  • health stress

  • job loss

  • job stress

  • exams.

As can be seen, the stressors which can contribute to depression symptoms are many and varied. And this is only a sampling--any stressor can contribute to depression symptoms.

It's a Two-Way Street

Not only does stress contribute to depression symptoms, but depression contributes to stress. Stress and depression research has confirmed this as well.

Constance Hammen (1991) studied 14 women with unipolar depression (a clinical depression that only results in depressive symptoms--not manic symptoms or extreme highs), 11 women with bipolar disorder (a mood disorder characterized by extreme highs and extreme lows), 13 women with long term medical illness, and 22 women with no illness or disorder. She found evidence that the depressed women's symptoms, behaviors, characteristics, and social context generated stress which, in turn, contributed to their depression.

In another stress and depression research project, Robert Pianta and Byron Egeland (1994) studied how stressful events contribute to depression and how depression contributes to stressful events over a one year period of time. They found that health-related stress, family violence, and financial stress related to an increase in depression. They also found that depression related to an increase in health-related stress, financial stress, household changes, spouse-partner stress, family violence stress, and substance abuse stress.

The cyclical course of dysphoria and stress among married women was demonstrated in a stress and depression study by Joanne Davila, Thomas Bradbury, Catherine Cohan, and Shelly Tochluk (1997). These researchers tested 154 newlywed couples assessing depressive symptoms, marital stress, support perceptions, and support behavior. The assessment was carried out shortly after the wedding and again one year later. The results indicated that depression symptoms caused marital stress to increase and social support to decrease and these changes, in turn, increased stress.

Ms. Davila (2001) later writes...(1) that marital conflicts, stressful and unsupportive marriages, and divorce can cause dysphoria and depression; (2) that dysphoria and depression can cause marital dissatisfaction and stress; and (3) spouses who are experiencing dysphoria and depression tend to treat each other badly.

The reason that stress can contribute to both depression symptoms such as sadness and to the illness of clinical depression is both biological and psychological according to the stress and depression research.

Science is just beginning to understand how stress affects the body causing depression. One process has recently been discovered by an international team of researchers. This team focused on a gene--the serotonin transporter gene--which regulates the levels of a brain chemical called serotonin.

Serotonin carries messages from one brain cell to another. Serotonin is also involved in regulating sleep.

There are two types of serotonin transporter genes--a short type and a long type. Everybody has two genes; therefore, a person may have two long genes, two short genes, or one long and one short gene.

Having at least one short gene makes a person more likely to develop depression when experiencing stress. In the study, 33 percent of the subjects who had one or two short genes developed depression in response to stress. Only 17 percent of the subjects with two long genes developed depression in response to stress (Carlson, 2003; Caspi, Sugden, Moffitt, Taylor, Craig, Harrington, McClay, Mill, Martin, Braithwaite, & Poulton, 2003).

Another chemical which seems to be involved in the stress and depression relationship is a hormone named Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). CRF helps you manage stress by triggering the release of two other stress hormones, adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol.

These hormones gear-up various systems in your body generating energy so that you can meet the challenges presented by the stressful situation. Evidence is accumulating that too much CRF may contribute to stress related depression ("Depression and Stress Hormones," n.d.).

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Psychology Can Help You Cope

There are several psychological factors which influence the stress and depression relationship.

One such factor is the resources which are available to you when you are experiencing the stress. Several studies have shown this to be the case.

One stress and depression research project involved 326 adults who were studied for ten years. During the course of the study, it was found that in stressful circumstances, depression symptoms increased as resources were lost and depression symptoms decreased as resources were gained (Holahan & Moos, 1991).

Another stress and depression study of 254 adults found that personal and social resources, such as family support, helped reduce depression and improve psychological health and adaptive coping strategies both during times of high stress and times of low stress (Holahan, Moos, Holahan, & Cronkite, 1999).

Judith Siegel and David Kuykendall (1990) in their stress and depression research found that when elderly men lose a family member, other than a spouse, they experienced increased depression. If a man had a spouse or was a member of a church or temple the impact of the loss was less. Thus, the resources of marriage and church or temple membership help protect men from depression when they experienced the stress of family loss.

Social support was again found to help reduce depression during times of stress in a stress and depression study involving 714 women who had experienced financial and material loss. In this study a group of researchers found that depression symptoms increased. The increase in symptoms was less, however, when the women had social support (Hobfoll, Johnson, Ennis & Jackson, 2003).

Another interesting stress and depression research project evaluated the impact of job loss and the financial stress which followed in 41 persons who had worked in the timber industry an average of 14 years. When the people had social support which reassured them of their personal worth and which acknowledged their competencies and abilities, they had less depression (Mallinckrodt & Bennett, 1992).

Social support has also been found to reduce depression in those involved in group psychotherapy. One stress and depression study examined the impact of social support on members of a psychotherapy group when the support was received from other group members and when it was received from others not in the group. The impact of support received from those outside of the group was found to have the greatest impact on reducing depression (Mallinckrodt, 1989).

The impact of social support was found to be limited in a nationwide (USA) stress and depression survey of older adults. The data collected during the survey showed that social support initially helped reduce depression symptoms during financial stress. If the social support continued, however, it began to result in increased depression (Krause, 1995). It seems that when it comes to social support, you can get too much of a good thing.

Another factor which has been found by the stress and depression research to help reduce depression is positive thoughts. Research has shown that negative thoughts increase depression symptoms and positive thoughts decrease depression symptoms during periods of high stress.

In one stress and depression study 436 children in grades 5 and 6 were evaluated concerning how they explained their academic achievement. Those who believed that they were academically incompetent and didn't have control over their academic success became more depressed after receiving an unacceptable grade. If they believed that were competent and had control over their success, an unacceptable grade resulted in less depression (Hilsman & Garber, 1995).

In another stress and depression study, 318 medical students were evaluated by testing for depression, dependency, and self-criticism. They were then tested again for depression during the first year after they graduated--which is a high stress time in the life of a new doctor--and ten years later.

Both dependency and self-criticism were found to be related to depression in male doctors during the first year of practice. The impact of these factors continued ten years later but were less severe.

In female doctors, self-criticism was found to be a factor during the first year of practice but not ten years later.

Thus, dependency and self-criticism were found to increase depression in male doctors during high stress. These factors had less of an impact during lower stress. For female doctors, self-criticism increased stress only during high stress (Brewin and Firth-Cozens, 1997).

A stress and depression research project tested 303 college students for perceived problem-solving ability and adjustment. The study found that the students experienced more depression and hopelessness after receiving a poor grade when they believed that their problem solving abilities were lower (Priester & Clum, 1993).

A stress and depression study that assessed positive automatic thoughts and life stressors in 152 undergraduate students found that when the number of positive thoughts was higher, happiness was also higher. Positive automatic thoughts about self-worth related to less depression when the students experienced stress (Lightsey, 1994).

Humor, gratitude, interest, and love have also been found to help buffer against depression during times of high stress (Nezu, Nezu, & Blissett, 1988; Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh & Larkin, 2003).

Coping skills is another factor which has been found by the stress and depression research to influence how much depression is experienced when under stress.

A stress and depression research study of 150 university students found that effective problem solvers experience less depression during periods of high stress when compared to ineffective problem solvers (Nezu & Ronan, 1988).

Another stress and depression study evaluated types of coping and how depression symptoms were effected. This study evaluated a group of extension agents concerning occupational stressors, coping strategies, burnout and depression. Agents who used emotion-oriented coping experienced more depression, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization than agents who used task-oriented coping (Sears, Urizar & Evans, 2000).

Interpersonal problem solving skills were found to be associated with depression symptoms, anxiety, hopelessness, and suicide intent by a group of stress and depression researchers studying hospitalized patients. As problem solving skills improved the symptoms decreased (Schotte, Cools & Payvar, 1990).

In one stress and depression study conducted by Stanford University Medical Center, a group of women who were caring for loved ones who with dementia were placed in a program that taught them coping skills such as time management, how to assertively ask for help, how to use positive thoughts, and how to prepare for the future. These women were compared with a group caretakers in a traditional support group.

Both the support group and the skills training group were found to be helpful in decreasing depression--the skills training group was found to be more helpful, however, than the support group ("Learning Skills Greatly Limits Stress for Famly Caregivers, Says Stanford Study," 2003).

Coping by journaling was found to decrease depression during stressful times in a stress and depression study carried out by Stephen Lepore (1997). In the study a group of students were evaluated for intrusive thoughts and depression one month before graduate entrance exams and three days before the exams. Some of the students were also instructed to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the upcoming exams. Others were asked to write about a trivial topic.

Those students who wrote about their exam related thoughts and feelings experienced less depression symptoms even though their intrusive thoughts continued to occur. Those who wrote about an unrelated topic did not experience a decrease in depression symptoms.

In another stress and depression study adolescents were taught coping skills which involved identifying and monitoring thoughts which increase stress, changing these thoughts into thoughts that are more adaptive, and using self-instructions to control stressful thinking. They also practiced and applied these coping skills.

As a result of this training the adolescents showed less anxiety and anger, better self-esteem, and more positive thinking in response to a hypothetical stressful situation (Hains & Szyjakowski, 1990).

One coping skill which has repeatedly been shown by stress and depression research to reduce depression symptoms is exercise. In one study law enforcement officers were placed in a program which involved weight lifting. After four months, they were evaluated and compared with officers who had not been in the weight lifting program.

The weight lifters were found to have fewer physical complaints, less anxiety, less depression, and less hostility. Their job satisfaction improved as well (Norvell & Belles, 1993).

To summarize, stress and depression research has shown, without question, that stress increases depression and depression increases stress. This happens because of complex biological factors which are just beginning to be understood.

A number of psychological factors also come to play and these can be used help the stressed-out person avoid becoming depressed.

To keep depression at bay during periods of high stress--and during periods of low stress...

  • make full use of personal resources such as social support

  • avoid negative thinking especially self-criticism

  • actively think positive thoughts and maintain a sense of humor, gratitude, interest, and love

  • cope actively by journaling, exercising, and problem solving.

One resource which you may find helpful in improving your coping skills is The How To Transform Your Life E-Workshop. To learn more about this E-Workshop, click here.

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