How Stress Increases Depression

depression and stress

What is stress, exactly?

Most of us are very familiar with being stressed from too much work, an overly critical boss, and high pressure to perform in school, sports, music, etc.

And I bet most of us would be able to say a few things we notice when we become stressed.

Physical symptoms like muscle tension, headaches, sweaty palms, and body aches… it actually sounds a lot an intense workout.

In fact, stress is exactly like an intense workout.

Stress, as we know it, is the body's physiological response to a stressor.

The mind doesn't distinguish a mental stressor from a physical stressor, however.

This is why being stressed from work results in the same physical repose as an intense physical workout.

The major difference is, stress from a physical workout has a much different result on mental health than stress from work.

Today we are going to look at why some stress increases depression, and why other stress decreases depression.

We are going to break down what to do with bad stress, and how to maximize good stress.

Stress, when controlled, can have a huge variety of benefits, while uncontrolled stress not only increases depression but is disastrous to our overall health and wellness.

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How Stress Increases Depression

Stress increases depression in a number of ways, but the main focus today is how stress increases depression via inflammation.

Inflammation in and of itself is essential for the body to heal and grow.

But, when inflammation is chronic it has the opposite effect, and one of the most common ways that chronic inflammation occurs is chronic stress.

More specifically chronic stress creates inflammatory cytokines which end up attacking the most essential mental health systems in the brain; dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine.

Again, in the short term, inflammation is a good thing, but when we can't stop the inflammation it is extremely harmful to our mind and body.

When inflammatory cytokines attack dopamine it disrupts our desire to pursue novel experiences, our creativity, and our interest in activities just to name a few.

Dopamine is crucial to our mental health stability.

Meanwhile, when those cytokines disrupt serotonin we are unable to experience contentedness, satisfaction, and healthy mood regulation that allows us to relax and feel calm in the moment.

Then we have epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline).

When our adrenaline is impacted by these inflammatory cytokines we have a noticeable loss of energy which contributes to motivation and the pursuit of goals.

All three of these systems impact one another, so when stress increases depression, what we are experiencing is a malfunctioning of all three of these essential neural networks.

Basically, the reason stress increases depression is that stress produces inflammation that directly impacts all the networks that are responsible for feeling good, pursuing goals, and having abundant energy.

Acute Stress

So, if stress is so bad, why did I mention how stress can also decrease depression?

The key difference is your ability to terminate stress when you want to.

Chronic stress increases depression, while acute stress reduces depression.

So, how do you get into stress when you want to, and why does that help reduce depression?

Choosing stress is simple enough; regular exercise, cold exposure, heat exposure, and breathing exercises like the Wim Hoff method are all deliberate practices of acute stress.

These are all activities that you consciously decide to participate in knowing that they will be difficult and strenuous.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is not entered by conscious choice.

It is circumstantial and often goes unnoticed accumulating over long periods without proper tools to help you relax.

By actively choosing to engage in stressful exercises like the ones mentioned above you prime your body and mind to have a natural end to the stressful period.

This automatically sends cues to release dopamine and serotonin once the exercise ends.

It also helps reduce chronic stress by helping you relax after the fact; a state that you otherwise wouldn't be able to enter because of how normalized your body and mind have made your baseline of stress.

Not only that, but exercise increases your heart rate which increases your stress threshold, helps you lose weight (which creates less stress on the body), improves your immune system, and helps you improve your quality of sleep.

So, yes, acute stress done in this fashion is terrific for reducing stress.

But how do you get out of chronic stress?

These exercises will help, but there is more to it.

Ending Chronic Stress

The hard part is to get out of stress that accumulated over weeks, months, or even years due to life circumstances, bad relationships, poor work conditions, and so forth.

The answer to getting out of chronic stress is found in these 3 pillars: Social Connection, Delight, and Gratitude.

The emotional experience of delight and gratitude will reduce chronic stress, and has the power to eliminate it, but it requires regular practice and the experience of the emotion of those 2 things.

The good news, we most commonly experience delight when we spend time with the people we love, that's social connection.

These 3 pillars frequently overlap.

For example, by taking time to consider how lucky we are to have people in our lives that love is the experience of gratitude and social connection.

When we visit with friends and family, the mere presence of those loved ones can elicit delight.

Connecting to activities that bring us joy, and then reflecting on the fact that there are activities that bring us joy, combines the experience of delight with the recognition of gratitude.

This may require effort and a little creativity but, if you make gratitude, delight, and social connection your aim, you will reduce depression and begin to exit chronic stress.


All-in-all, you can't say that stress is bad.

Stress can be extremely beneficial to physical and mental health.

The good kind of stress is acute stress like exercise, cold exposure, heat exposure, and breathwork.

Where stress becomes a problem and increases depression is when that stress is chronic and you can't get out of stress.

Now you know how stress increases depression, and how it can decrease depression.

Always talk to your doctor before beginning new exercise regimens.

Depression is also best treated with the support of a mental health counselor.

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May 28th, 2023

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