Understanding Stress and DepressionBy Dr. Richard Boyum
WHAT IS STRESS?
First, it is important to think of stress as wear and tear. This only has meaning if you think of yourself as an energy system with a rated capacity. When you talk about being stressed or stressed out what this really means is that you are exceeding your normal rated capacities to deal with the kinds of internal and external stressful events in your daily life. Specifically, when we talk about being stressed we are really talking about being distressed. That is the point at which you are extending more energy than is healthy. When sensing your overall stress levels there are a couple of other things you may want to consider. First, list the total number of stressors that you have in your life. Second, on a scale of low, moderate and high, think of the intensity of each of your stressors. Third, consider the duration or length of time each of the stressors last. Another area for examination is to look at which stressors you have that are physical, which stressors that are emotional, and which stressors that are intellectual. Many stressors can be a combination of all three. Research on high school and college age population indicate that emotional stressors for most people tend to predominate. This will be talked about in another part of this discussion because with emotional stressors, how you think about things affects how stressful the events are.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF STRESS?
Generally the signs of stress are a combination of physical and social symptoms. Some of the more predominate physical signs are headaches, upset stomach, sleeplessness, disturbed sleep patterns, or feeling tired all the time. Excessive sweating, weight gain or loss and cold hands are additional symptoms. Social symptoms may include such things as irritability, difficulty in concentrating, change in eating or drinking behavior patters (eating at a much faster pace or excessive eating of a particular type of food). Other symptoms in a social situation may include increased caffeine or alcohol consumption. Changing the normal way you react in social situations can also be social symptoms of distress. These include such things for some people as being hyper or the opposite extreme - withdrawal.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT A HIGH LEVEL OF STRESS?
Research on stress says that if there are simply too many stressors of too great intensity for too long of a period of time, any human being needs rest and relaxation. For individuals who have more of the typical kinds of stressors that at times become too intense, most people need to alter their activities. What this means is if you have been working inside for too long or doing too much thinking on a project, you need to get outside or do some feeling-related activities. If you have been working really hard at something for a long time, you need to find something that is playful and enjoyable. Essentially, what we are saying is to take a look at what your are doing; look at its opposite and see if you need some of that. Another important part of dealing with stress is to enhance your overall coping skills. You may need to examine how you think about things. Some of this may involve something as simple as watching your language in your self-talk. Do you have a tendency to exaggerate? Or do you deny the positive aspects of an event? (This is called mental filtering.) Some individuals tend to keep everything to themselves. It is helpful at times to have someone talk to. Talk to a roommate or a friend, or perhaps a professional person such as someone in your university counseling service. For some students, a mentor or teacher can be a helpful sounding board to talk about stressful events. The process of catharsis, or simply talking something out, generally seems to be helpful to most individuals. Relaxation training or mild to moderate exercises three or more times a week, also is helpful to most adolescents and young adults. Being an effective time manager and learning to set reasonable limits for the number of activities or events you are responsible for can be helpful as well. One of the mistakes some people make is taking on too much. They handle it well in the beginning but over the long haul it may turn out to be too much. It is always better to have a little extra time and energy on your hands than to never have enough.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO DEPRESSION?
To most individuals depression is often the result of too much unresolved stress. This can also occur when something really overwhelming happens. The most important thing to understand is that when a person is depressed it becomes a revolving circle. The more depressed a person is, the less day-to-day stress they can cope with. And like stress, depression can be mild, moderate, or extreme. It can also be ongoing or it can appear and disappear. Another type of depression needs mentioning here. This is referred to as endogenous depression. Endogenous depression often has a biological basis. Research indicates that some people are biologically predisposed to being depressed. It is important to realize that all people experience depression some times, and feeling sad or down is a part of what it means to be human. Consequently, in assessing how your feel, try using words like "sad" or "down", and if they do not fit you may be actually experiencing some form of depression.
ADDITIONAL SIGNS OF DEPRESSION
All of the symptoms that exist for defining stress exist for depression as well. There are some additional symptoms that need mentioning. Symptoms include such things as crying a great deal, feeling hopeless, loss of sexual desire, and an inability to find pleasure in anything. Other symptoms may include comments by others that you do not seem like the person you used to be, chronic fatigue, an inability to think clearly, concentrate, or make decisions on fairly simple issues in your life.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT DEPRESSION?
There are a number of things that an individual can do about depression. This is true of all types of depression. For most people, situational depression responds well to talk therapy. Making contact with a psychologist for a number of counseling session can be very helpful. Usually when the person has a serious depression, the kind of normal discussion that occurs with friends is more like putting a Band-Aid on. It does not really heal the issues; it helps for a while, but the extra support of a trained therapist may be required. Often there are groups through counseling services to help people deal with topical issues or areas that may be causing their depression. Self-esteem groups, abuse survivors groups, and skill development groups often help to alleviate depression. Often there are groups offered for depression itself. Groups led by trained therapists working with others like yourself who are depressed can be of real benefit. Topical groups often last for eight weeks and depression groups may be ongoing. Counseling sessions once a week or once every other week usually are sufficient to allow a depression to lift in a matter of months. In addition self-help books can be useful tools in lifting depression. Also, research has shown that both moderate exercise and making sure you expose yourself to enough bright light each day can moderate the effects of depression.
For significant numbers of people medication can be an important adjunct to the counseling and self-help process. There are a variety of medications to help people deal with both situational and biologically based depressions. For the college population there is a class of medications that have minimal side effects and allows students to stay focused on their academic work. One way used to describe these medications, is that they take you out of the basement so you can see things from a ground level perspective. These drugs are not addictive. Many individuals take them from six to twelve months and some individuals stay on them for a longer period of time. The medications usually open your window of opportunity and make possible the kinds of behavioral changes that are needed to enhance your coping skills. For individuals with true endogenous (biologically based) depression, medications may need to be used indefinitely. This is not a sign of failure or personal ineptness anymore than being a diabetic or needing glasses for better vision is a sign of personal ineptness. You may want to talk to your physician or psychologist regarding the use of these medications.
Depression and stress are a normal part of life. If you are experiencing an unusually large amount of either, take the time to take care of yourself and address these issues and use services such as a counselor.