Making high quality mental healthcare accessible for everyone

How stress can lead to depression and anxiety – and what to do about it

You wake up after a fitful night’s sleep and realise you’re already cutting it fine. You get the kids off to childcare and school, battle the traffic to get to the office and do your best to power through an unmanageable workload. Before long, it’s time to race back to pick up the kids, supervise homework, make dinner, tackle the overflowing laundry basket and pay some bills. 

You can recover from one crazily busy day. But the problem is that this is every day, every week, every month. When this level of stress becomes normal (known as chronic stress), it has an effect on your physical and mental health. 

What’s stressing us out? 

There are many causes of stress in modern life, including: 

  • Financial stress: 73% of Australians feel extremely stressed or somewhat stressed about their financial situation and over 25% are finding it hard to get by on their current income
  • Relationship stress: Over 70% of Australians report relationship pressures in the last 6 months
  • Workplace stress: 70% of Aussies experience stress in the workplace at least once a week, including the level of responsibility, long work hours, and concerns over job security
  • Time stress: A third of Australians feel under chronic time pressure. 

What are the effects of chronic stress?

Stress sets off your body’s alarm systems, releasing a surge of hormones like:

  • Adrenaline – which increases your heart rate and blood pressure
  • Cortisol – which increases blood glucose, alters your immune response, suppresses your digestion and affects your mood, motivation and fear levels. 

When your stress is due to a one-off event, your body returns to its normal baseline and all is well. But, when you’re constantly stressed those hormone levels remain high. That ongoing exposure to high levels of stress hormones increases the risk of many health problems including: 

  • Digestive disorders
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment. 

It also affects your mental health. 

How does stress lead to depression and anxiety?

Stress has both a direct and indirect effect on your mood

Chronic stress can directly cause anxiety and depression, just as it can cause other health problems. 

Anxiety and depression can then create further stress. Maybe you’re feeling flat and lack motivation. As a result, your job performance declines and your boss has a serious word with you. And now, you’re more stressed because your job is clearly on the line. 

Or perhaps your chronic stress is making you irritable. Your angry responses lead to conflict with your friends and family, which causes more stress. 

Stress can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms which lower your mood and ultimately create more stress. As Medibank’s research shows, when you’re overworked and exhausted, you’re less likely to exercise and more likely to binge-watch show after show (57% of people surveyed) while gorging yourself on junk food (43%), having another bevvie (22%) and indulging in some online shopping (15%).

Unfortunately, inactivity, a poor diet and excessive alcohol consumption do nothing to improve your mood. In fact, you’ll probably end up feeling worse.

Clearly, this is a vicious cycle. How can you break free of it?

Managing stress in a healthy way

With some self-reflection and a few deliberate changes, you can manage stress in a healthier way. 

1.Change the broader situation – if you can

Think about what’s causing your stress and, if you can, take some steps to ease that situation. That might mean talking to your boss or your partner to ease your workload or get more help at home. 

2. Learn your stress signs

Try to spot the signs that you’re feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you become more tearful or irritable than usual or perhaps you start to find it hard to get to sleep. 

When that happens, you know it’s time to change something. 

3. Make a plan

Think about what you could do differently. What can help you leave work on time? Where can you fit in some exercise to give you a natural mood boost? How can you ensure you’re eating a balanced diet?

It’s not easy to make changes when you’re overwhelmed and feel stuck but even a few small steps in a healthier direction may tip the balance in your favour. 

4. Anticipate the obstacles

Try to find some creative ways to get around possible difficulties. For example, if you don’t have enough time to exercise and socialise then achieve both at the same time by meeting a friend for a walk. If you can’t afford to go out for dinner with friends, try meeting for a BBQ in the park. 

5. Breathe

Check your breathing – are you breathing quickly and shallowly? That’s common when you’re stressed. 

Deep, slow breathing, on the other hand, can help ease stress. That’s because it activates your parasympathetic nervous system which helps to calm your heart rate and reassure your mind.

6. Get some professional help

Psychologists are trained to support people dealing with the effects of chronic stress, including mood disorders like depression and anxiety. You can pour out your worries to a good therapist and, as you unburden yourself, you may begin to see new ways through your difficulties. 

The Talk Shop has a large team of Psychologists who can teach you evidence-based strategies to manage stress and encourage you as you try new, healthier ways of coping with your situation. 

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All information is general and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The Talk Shop can consult with you to confirm if a particular treatment is right for you.