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The SAD Reality – The Link Between Stress, Anxiety and Depression
According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, anxiety and depressive disorders are affecting over 300 million people worldwide, and is growing in alarming numbers. In Australia, according to some surveys, if one includes people who have anxiety but remain undiagnosed, then the statistic may be 1 in 3 people are suffering some form of anxiety or depressive disorder.
Anxiety affects women more than men according to the United States National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website. This statistic persists despite ethnic, racial or economic differences between women. The Blackdog Institute for Depression, currently notes over 2 million Australians have some form of anxiety disorder or condition, while over 1 million have some form of depressive disorder.
Anxiety disorders are sometimes clinically divided into two main types. The Beyond Blue Institute notes that the first type is known as General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which typically is a background unspecific but enduring state and presence in the sufferer. The second type is often associated with trauma or events and includes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Phobias, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, which can be triggered by a major life stressor event.
Anxiety has a causal relationship with both stress and depression. Indeed a major life stressor is often recognised as having been the trigger to a subsequent onset of bouts of both anxiety and depression in many of those affected. Many people who define themselves as stressed are often really exhibiting anxiety in one of its forms.
Stress, anxiety and depression are known to be key causes of some of the 8 possible types of misattribution or faulty recall of our brain. New research published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that chronic stress and anxiety creates physical changes in the brain, affecting key areas which are involved in memory formation and emotional processing.
Neuroscience has found that stress affects two important regions in the brain: the hippocampus and the amygdala. When under stress, there is an enhanced activity in the amygdala (the part that regulates the “fight or flight” response plus emotions and pleasure). Hyper-arousal can result which then results in amplified emotional symptoms.
The Hippocampus holds memories and so misattribution can occur based on the Hippocampus being affected by stress and anxiety. Because of this, the brain finds it difficult to transmit factual information and then falls back to limbic brain input which orients towards relying on emotional experiences and reactions more so than rational and cognitive inputs.
There is evidence now that the presence of trauma and its related onset of anxiety and then depression for some sufferers can also affect brain function and its neuroplasticity. Research shows that the stress hormones produced in depression stunt the growth of the endings of neurons in the brain.
These neural endings are what create new thinking and associations. This explains why depression sufferers often have “foggy” thinking and confused thinking as their neural processes become affected by the stress hormones. The same stress hormones also cause long term shrinkage of the memory parts of the brain (Hippocampus) and affect the cortical parts of the brain that regulate impulses and bodily initiated signalling to higher consciousness processes.
Likewise SAD sufferers often suffer from obtaining good quality sleep. Research has shown how our sleep creates the basis for neural wiring that links and creates memories in the brain. The sleep mechanism enables the brain to consolidate emotional memory and creates the ability for the brain’s recollection of and response to memories. Foggy thinking may result from the loss of good quality sleep which disrupts this process.
Trauma often results in ongoing bouts of stress, anxiety and depression. It is no wonder that in between the episodes of trauma re-creation the mind of a trauma sufferer is like the mind of an anxiety sufferer.
According to body-mind researcher and M.D, Alexander Lowen, anxiety manifests its key symptoms in both the body and the mind. In the mind of the sufferer the reported symptoms commonly include where the reported symptoms commonly include having a racing mind, thought loops where the thinking is often fear based and cannot be resolved, and lack of clarity or stability in trains of thought.
It could include feeling tired due to loss of sleep, having a busy mind that tends to ruminate or constantly think of some past issue that remains unresolved, or of being hyper-vigilant to their environment. It may include being unable to relax or concentrate in present time, adopting ritualistic obsessions or practices to distract oneself from one’s own thinking, to name a few.
In the body there is often a felt sense of jumpiness, alertness, fear, tension in muscles, fatigue without sleepiness, raised heartbeat and blood pressure or sweaty or clammy hands. There may be shaking, twitching, nervous tics, frequent urination, dry mouth or throat, dizziness, shallow breathing, stomach complaints, impulses to move and be busy or some form of hyperactivity followed by a collapse into an alert tiredness again.
The natural hormones of the body can create many of the symptoms of anxiety when their levels are affected by stress. For example one aspect of living under stress is the elevation of the levels of the hormone known as cortisol. Just like all hormones in the body, cortisol has an optimum range, and an excess in this level can be dangerous, even toxic.
When your brain is under stress, your cortisol level remains high – a big factor in many mental conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic fatigue/burnout. Excess release of cortisol may also affect your sleep via your circadian rhythm, and lead to poor immune system, insomnia, and disrupted metabolism.
The effect of too much cortisol is the same as stress in that it creates havoc on the hippocampus part of the brain. Stress triggers the release of cortisol and so one is the mental affect (stress), and one is part of the body affect (cortisol).
Cortisol is the agent of that wider term we call stress and is the key physical agent creating some of the symptoms we associate with stress. Cortisol and stress specifically weaken cells in the hippocampus and cause neurons to shrink and become disordered.
Our brain is very much vulnerable to stress, just like our heart and all other parts of our body. When stress affects the brain we experience the symptoms of poor concentration, forgetfulness, and influx of emotions.
The key issue here is that Anxiety is a body-mind issue that needs to be treated with both a cognitive (mind) and a somatic (body) approach, and is in some cases related to an underlying trauma issue.
According to trauma researchers such as Pat Ogden, Anxiety is an outcome of being in the Sympathetic state of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), and leads to the sufferer living from a “fight or flight” state of body-mind.
In this state the body and mind symptoms noted before, all become manifest due to the brain forcing us to be in a primitive “survival” mode that is anxious, hypervigilant, and cannot be sustained over any long period of time according to our body’s current state of evolutionary design.
The “fight or flight” state is designed to be resolved quickly, and not indefinitely sustained. This is the problem though for many people is they get into this state of being but their environment or their perception of their safety in their environment, keeps them unresolved and in a “fight or flight” mode.
So first they start to manifest anxiety, and then for some they drop into depression. The proof of this is that medically it is recognised that every person who is depressed has underlying anxiety, but not everyone who is anxious will go on to have depression.
Alexander Lowen notes that anxiety is a foundation state for the onset of depression as it represents the key body-mind condition that is felt when one is in “fight or flight”. Stress or trauma lie behind both of these conditions.
Research shows that first some key glands in our body become over-active as they try to keep up with the demands of brain to maintain hyper-vigilance and its related states. Eventually they collapse under the unceasing demand to produce their stress hormone. The person now has under-active glands.
The medical conditions of Adrenal Exhaustion or Burnout, Under or Over-active Thyroid, Pituitary Gland Fatigue, and some forms of migraine headaches are examples of this demand on the HPA Axis. Naturopaths are finding that over or under active glands are driving increasing numbers of the public to seek consultation for “lack of energy” or some stress/anxiety related symptom.
Trauma neuroscientists such as Pat Ogden note that anxiety sufferers are basically existing in the upper borderline state of arousal of their Autonomic Nervous Systems(ANS). They are in a charged energetic and emotional state that then creates “hyper” activation of parts of the bodymind.
Note such terms that apply to anxious people such as hyper-vigilant, hyper-sensitive, hyper-aroused, hyper-tonic muscles, hyper-active etc. Over-active glands are likely to exist in keeping the body in this hyper=aroused state.
Long term Anxiety sufferers often manifest these type of secondary illnesses as well as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Candida and Thrush issues, all due to this process. Anxious people are often sick a lot of the time or the first to “catch” what’s going around illness wise.
The reason is that as part of being in the Sympathetic Nervous System state, the body-mind suppresses the immune system function in the body, notes Neuroscience authors such as Joe Dispenza, Bruce Lipton, and others. Once you have long term Sympathetic Nervous System state of being, you then develop a long term suppressed immune system.
From this place the opportunistic funguses (e.g. Thrush, Candida, H. Pylori) are able to grow in the gut and other sites to critical mass levels, while colds, flus, infections are likewise from a viral and bacterial viewpoint also able to gain footholds and produce illness. Once key glands become under-active then these outcomes are also seen to increase.
While in “fight or flight” mode, the HPA Axis also suppresses some key hormones that we rely on for good body-mind health in this same way under these same conditions. The key mood chemicals such as Serotonin and Dopamine, plus some key feel-good endorphin chemicals are all suppressed when a person is in the “fight or flight” Sympathetic Nervous System mode.
Long term suppression of each of these chemicals in the body has a causal link to depression, as seen in the use of SSRI drugs in attempting to overcome depression. This is one of the key reasons a person suffering anxiety can over a longer term then slide into depression, and why all depression sufferers have an underlying anxiety issue.
The resulting downside of living in “fight or flight” mode then is the impacted body then negatively affects our moods, emotions, concentration, cognition or thinking processes, which all form part of what a person needs to be operating well in their life. The body and mind work together, not apart, and both show the effects of living from the “fight or flight” mode Sympathetic Nervous system state for too long.
This prolonged state of “fight or flight” may be also affecting the normal operation of our Pineal gland and its regulation of our circadian rhythms. According to Huda Akil, Ph.D. from the Molecular & Behavioural Neuroscience Institute and Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Disorders Research Consortium, hundreds of genes are very sensitive to the circadian rhythm in our bodies.
It has been found that the brains of people who died whilst depressed had circadian rhythms out of synch with the actual corresponding state of night and day. Anxiety sufferers are thought to also show some disturbance of this key master regulator process of the body and its hormonal processes.
The Pineal gland exists in the “third eye” point between our eyes at the line of the brow. It controls the activation and cessation of many key processes of the body as well as governing the production and release of key bodymind hormones, substances and chemicals which directly create wellness and stability.
The dissection of brains in this key Depression study showed the affect depression was having on this key process. Researchers found that during depression the biological clock is dsyregulated to the point that a patient’s “day” pattern of gene activity could look like “night”, and vice versa.
Disrupted circadian rhythms can affect sleep patterns and anxiety sufferers can have disrupted sleep patterns in the same way depression sufferers do. This affect resembles Seasonal Adjustment Disorder (SAD) and SAD may actually have more to do with stress and anxiety than the weaker sunlight that affects Pineal gland triggers of day and night recognition plus regulation of hormone releases throughout the body.
Currently society predominately treats Anxiety via a combination of counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), in combination with the prescription of a range of relaxant, mood suppressant or mood affect drugs. This approach only addresses the symptoms of the problem and does not address the “fight or flight” state of the person that creates this problem in the first place.
Trauma researchers such as Pat Ogden note that CBT is also a “front brain” rational form of therapy which while helping with the mental distortions of anxiety sufferers, it does not get into the Limbic or “emotional brain” of sufferers from where the ANS gets its impulses to switch in and out of “fight or flight” state of being.
This common mainstream medical approach to anxiety restricts a person for enduring periods, or perhaps for life to taking medication and doing therapy, without often addressing the key underlying body-mind system that sets up the condition in the first place!!
The Energetics Institute has designed anxiety and depression resolution programmes in both its personal Psychotherapy as well as its organisational Conscious Business Australia faculties. These have been adapted from the various body-mind traditions of Somatic Therapy, Yoga, Mindfulness, Meditation, CBT, Human Biology, Neuroscience, and the Bioenergetic understanding of the body and mind.