What Your Stress Response Says About You

As a psychotherapist, I often hear people talk about how they just get so stressed out over the smallest stuff but they feel like they can’t control it. They know the stress is not good for them and that they should not get so stressed over such small things, but it just keeps happening anyways. “Something happens, blood pressure goes up and there is not much I can do about it. I just get so easily stressed out.” I hear this a lot.

This morning I watched an interesting lecture on depression given at Stanford University by Robert Sapolsky, who is an author and one of the world’s leading nueroendocronologists. In this lecture, which I will link to below if you are interested in watching it, Sapolsky explains how depression is a serious biological disease just like diabetes. In fact, Sapolsky states that depression is one of the most damaging diseases that a person can experience.

What I found really interesting about Sapolsky’s lecture was when he started talking about how depression as a state where someone cannot get out of bed, is not really what depression is. A more accurate biological manifestation of depression is a continual heightened stress response. This means that a defining characteristic of a person with depression is an continual activation of their stress response. Interesting, right? Like a machine gun going off all day, a person with depression is often experiencing an uncontrollable stress response to various things in their life that don’t warrant the kind of stressed out response they get. This gradually wears a person down over time and causes them to feel worn out, low energy, low drive and unable to get out of bed at times.

We often think of depression as a depressed or heavy state. I found it fascinating that depression can manifest as an over-active, hyper-stimulated state. A person who is always getting upset or stressed out over the simplest things (like dishes not be done, being late, closet not organized, someone cutting them off in traffic or saying something they don’t like, etc, etc…) is actually experiencing a major symptom of depression.

I am interested in this because as a mindfulness teacher and practitioner one of my main interests in mindfulness is its ability to help us get much more skilled when it comes to dealing with our stress response. Instead of our stress response to various little things causing our entire day to be ruined because we get so upset or stressed out, mindfulness helps us to respond positively to our stress response by noticing that it has kicked in and then being able to let it go. This is often called self-regulation.

Since an elevated and often uncontrollable stress response is a main characteristic of depression, I find this lecture encouraging since it validates what I already know- that regular mindfulness practice is an effective intervention for depression (and anxiety). Practicing mindfulness also encourages a person to take a more active role in their mental and physical health rather than engaging in learned helplessness, which causes the depressed state to spiral downwards.

 

You can watch the lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc

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