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. 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.
1. Stress disrupts a person’s healthy coping strategies.
When people experience stress, they often stop engaging in some of the healthy coping strategies that usually help keep their mood on track. In other words, when stress triggers a lowered mood, it's more likely that the person will skip their typical healthy mood regulation strategies—resulting in further mood problems.
Example: Stress at work can lead to overworking; as a result, the person doesn’t go to yoga class, go running, read before bed, or catch up with close friends as much.
2. 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
- impaired concentration results in a mistake—either a major mistake or just a small mistake, like leaving something important at home
3. Stress can disrupt relationships.
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; this then becomes an additional source of stress for the couple.
4. Stress can increase unhealthy coping.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms can have direct effects on mood—e.g., excessive alcohol use leading to lower mood—as well as indirect effects, like excessive alcohol use leading to relationship problems, which then lead to lower mood. Avoidance coping increases both stress and anxiety. (Learn more about avoidance coping in this article.)
5. Routines and structures may be disrupted.
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 healthy meals and sleeping at consistent times. This, in turn, 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 that 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. This can include noticing yourself getting irritable at work, making repeated mistakes due to lack of concentration, or something similar.
- Make a short list of things you could do when you notice the early warning signs. For example, if you notice that you've been overworking, you could start scheduling catch-ups with friends for immediately after work so that you feel compelled to leave on time.
- Identify barriers to being able to implement your ideas when you're under stress. What could you do to overcome those barriers? For example: "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—like 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, particularly if your partner or a close friend sometimes feels like they’re the only one supporting you. If you book a booster session with your therapist, consider having a close other accompany you to the session so your therapist can get their perspective.
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