Understanding the psychological mechanisms of how stress can lead to depression can help you prevent it. This is especially important for people who have had a prior episode of depression and would like to prevent relapse.
Stress has direct effects on mood and early initial symptoms of lowered mood can include irritability, sleep disruption and cognitive changes such as impaired concentration. However, the indirect effects of stress are often what causes depression to take hold.
Stress Disrupts Person’s Healthy Coping Strategies
When people experience stress, they often stop doing some of the healthy coping strategies that usually help keep their mood on track. Stress > lowered mood > person skips their typical types of healthy mood regulation strategies > more mood problems.
- Stress at work > overworking > the person doesn’t go to yoga class, go running, read before bed, or catch up with close friends as much.
Early Initial Low Mood Symptoms Generate Further Stress
When a person is stressed and begins to experience some initial changes in their mood, these symptoms often generate further increased stress.
- the person has an irritable outburst at work and gets a complaint, or
- impaired concentration results in a mistake (either major mistakes or just small mistakes like leaving something important at home and then needing to drive home to get it.)
Overworking, irritability, and withdrawal can all cause increased arguments. Someone who is absorbed by their own stress may become less emotionally available to their partner.
Especially when an individual has had problems with depression in the past, it can be frightening for partners to see signs that make them concerned that their loved one could be becoming depressed again. Sometimes partners start to think about leaving the relationship and then this becomes a major source of stress for the couple.
Increased Unhealthy Coping
Unhealthy coping can have direct effects on mood
e.g., excessive alcohol use > lower mood.
and/or indirect effects
e.g., excessive alcohol use > relationship problems > lower mood.
Disrupted Routines and Structure
Self-regulatory strength is like a mental muscle - using it helps keep it strong. Life stress and initial lowered mood often lead to people abandoning routines of eating and sleeping at consistent times etc. This sometimes begins a slippery slope of under-regulation. Moreover, having consistent routines like regular eating helps regulate mood.
5 Practical Tips for Depression Prevention
- Become aware of what healthy coping strategies are important for maintaining your mood but tend to go out the window when you’re stressed or overworking.
- Identify early warning signs that are a signal that you need to make some changes (such as noticing yourself getting irritable at work, or making repeated mistakes due to lack of concentration).
- Make a short list of things you could do when you notice the early warning signs (e.g., in response to noticing overworking you could start scheduling catch ups with friends for immeditately after work so that you leave work on time).
- Identify barriers to being able to implement your ideas when you're under stress. What could you do to overcome those barriers? e.g., "If I don’t have money to go to dinner, i could arrange to meet friends for coffee."
- Your relationships are an important resource. What can you do to avoid straining them when you're stressed?
Simple things can help e.g., making sure you say something positive before you say something negative when you first see your partner or roommates at the end of the day.
Having a therapist you can touch base with when your mood starts to go downhill can also help if your partner sometimes feels like they’re the only one supporting you. If you book a booster session with your therapist, consider having your partner accompany you to the session so your therapist can get your partner's perspective.
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You can read my prior articles for Psychology Today here.