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Monday, May 17, 2010

Finding your way out of the Shadowlands of Stress and Depression

A couple of months ago a business associate asked me to give a stress management presentation at his health seminar. I ended up speaking on a topic that's been on my mind for a long time: the relationship between stress and depression.

As a stress researcher, I learned that the real danger of chronic stress is that it can lead to all sorts of other nasty things -- physical problems like hypertension and heart disease, but also mental disorders like depression. And have you noticed that depression is a HUGE problem in the United States?! Here are just some of the scary statistics: 1 in every 20 Americans is suffering from depression right now (one in every 7, if you're looking under the poverty line) [1]. Depression is the leading cause of disability[2] and costs the already groaning U.S. healthcare system an estimated $83 billion per year to treat its victims.[3]

But here's the kicker. A lot of our depression stems from stress, the pressure points of life. In fact, about 80% of depression cases are preceded by stressful life events.[4] So as a stress management speaker and consultant, what I try to do is to get people to manage their stress effectively so that it never culminates into the deep, dark shadows of depression.

So let's start with the basics:

  1. Make sure you are getting enough rest and eating a healthy diet (lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, quality protein and healthy fats). A healthy body means a healthy mind.
  2. Make sure you get some (at least 30 minutes) of aerobic exercise at least 5 days a week, preferably out in the sunlight.
  3. Finally, spend 5-15 minutes every day on organization and time management. You will find that a miniscule amount of time invested into these activities gives huge returns in energy, better health and productivity in the long run.

We'll talk more about these basics in future posts. But now let's talk about some stress management techniques that may not be so obvious, yet have been proven to be the real power players in the fight against stress-induced depression.

  1. Stay connected with your friends and family. Good social support systems have been shown to be vitally important in fighting physical and mental illness. Starting to feel blue? DON'T follow your first instinct, which will be to lock yourself in your bedroom with the tv or the internet. Instead, call your mom or visit a friend.
  2. Help someone else. Researchers have been shocked to discover just how much altruism benefits our health and even increases longevity. Helping someone else is beneficial in 2 ways: (1) it will get your mind off your own troubles, and (2) it will make your part of the world a better, happier place. Just think what would happen if everyone did that.
  3. Stay optimistic. I know, this is easier said than done, especially when you're going through a really tough time. If it helps, read a book or talk to someone else who went through the same thing or something worse. It may give you some courage and hope to know that others have made it to the other side, and maybe even learned something valuable in the process.
  4. Laugh. Researchers know that humor is a healer. Don't see anything funny? Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, wrote this of his experience in the Auschwitz concentration camp: "An outsider might be astonished to hear that one could find a sense of humor [at Auschwitz]; of course, only the faint trace of one, and then only for a few seconds or minutes...Humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness
    and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds." [5]
  5. Find Faith. Recent studies at Duke University have found that those who had strong religious convictions and actively participated in religious activities were less likely to be waylaid by depression, and bounced back faster from depression. [6]

There's a lot to think about in each one of these tools -- hopefully we will get to all of them in future posts. If you are interested in learning more right now, check out this DVD on the subject from our Stress:Beyond Coping e-store.

Best wishes for your health.

[1] Pratt, LA; Brody, DJ (2008) Depression in the United States Household Population, 2005-2006. National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief (7).
[2]The World Health Organization. The global burden of disease: 2004 update, Table A2: Burden of disease in DALYs by cause, sex and income group in WHO regions, estimates for 2004. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO, 2008.
[3]Greenberg PE, Kessler RC, Birnbaum HG, et al. (2003) The Economic Burden of Depression in the United States: How Did It Change Between 1990 and 2000? Am Fam Physician. 2003;68:2401–2408,2409.
[4]Mazure CM (1998) Life stressors as risk factors for depression. Clin Psychol Sci Pract 5:291-313.
[5] Frankl VE (1984) Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Washington Square Press, New York. p.63.
[6] Reviewed in: Koenig HG (2008) Medicine, Religion and Health. Templeton Foundation Press, Pennsylvania. pp. 70-72.

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