Does stress lead to depressive disorder?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated January 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

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Is stress causing you to feel sad, lonely, or distressed?
Over 280 million adults worldwide live with depression, and there are multiple depressive disorders one could experience. If you're experiencing prolonged sadness, lack of energy, difficulty sleeping, excessive sleepiness, irritability, and lack of motivation, you may be experiencing depression. 
There are many causes of depression, and it may be short or long-term, depending on the circumstances. At times, people may experience depression after going through stressful situations or major life events. Chronic stress can be a cause of many mental and physical health concerns. If you have been experiencing chronic stress, considering a depression screening may be valuable. 

What is depressive disorder?

Some people may say that they feel depressed when feeling sad. It's normal and healthy to feel sad sometimes. However, depression is more than sadness. According to the American Psychiatric Association, depression is characterized by extreme sadness, hopelessness, or apathy lasting for at least two weeks. The American Psychiatric Association also states that one in six people will experience depression at some point in their lives. The National Institute of Mental Health lists the following types of depressive disorder:

  • Major depressive disorder (MDD)
  • Persistent depressive disorder (PDD)
  • Post-partum depressive disorder 
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) 
  • Depressive disorder with symptoms of psychosis
  • Situational depression 

These feelings may be so severe that those impacted struggle to maintain their commitments, maintain healthy relationships, or care for themselves. Physical and mental health may start to deteriorate as stress accumulates. In addition, an individual may stop enjoying activities they previously enjoyed.

If you feel like you might be experiencing symptoms of depression, bring it up with your healthcare provider. Maintaining a healthy relationship with your doctor may help them determine when depressive disorder crosses the line from a regular emotional response to a disorder. Many doctors perform mental health screenings during routine checkups to check for symptoms. 

Chemical causes of depression

There are many causes for depression, and experts believe the primary cause is a mixture of biological and environmental occurrences. However, in some cases, stress may occur for no reason and significantly impact mood. Some people experience depression as the seasons change, whereas others may experience it for no reason. 

For some people, depression could be caused or aggravated by imbalances of chemicals in the brain that your body uses to communicate between different systems. This process explains why some people experience depression for seemingly no reason and why two people can go through similar life events, and only one goes through a depressive state. 

In addition, depression has a 40% to 50% hereditary rate, so family members may pass on the condition to their children. If you have a family member who has experienced depression, getting a screening with your primary care doctor may be beneficial, even if you don't have symptoms. A family history of depression is one of the factors physicians consider when diagnosing someone with depression.

Other people have symptoms of depression due to another kind of chemical problem. Your body makes chemicals with the help of the sun, so in people with seasonal affective disorder, symptoms of depression can occur because of changing seasons. If your stress and depression seem to come and go around the same time every year, consider talking to your primary care provider about seasonal affective disorder. 

Because chemical imbalances are not the only cause of depression, you can also have depression without having a family history of the condition, chemical imbalances, or seasonal challenges. 

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Emotional causes of depression

Major life events like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job are common risk factors for depression. However, stressful events like moving to a new town, changing jobs, or starting a new school can also cause depression.

Depression caused by stressors may not necessarily require professional or medical intervention. In some cases, it may take time for your mind and body to adjust to a new situation. However, if your mood hasn't adjusted in a few weeks or if your symptoms of depression are severe, talk to your primary care provider or a therapist. Depression can often come with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, which can be dangerous.  

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 

How does stress induce depressive disorder? 

Stress can have significant effects in both the short and long term, many of which can contribute to other mental health challenges. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression but haven't gone through a significant life change like those described above, you may still be experiencing depression. 

Daily stress

Stress can occur due to daily events, such as relationship conflicts, a lack of progress at work, difficulty adjusting to a change, financial challenges, or a lack of time for self-care. For some people, stress occurs when life feels stagnant or unmoving or if they are unable to pursue their passions. If such symptoms persist, your feelings of despair can cause depression.

Lack of social connection 

Humans are social animals and are, therefore, more likely to experience depression without social bonds with close friends and family. As a result, chronic stress that wears away at social bonds could cause depression. This correlation is part of why other mental health issues might cause depression. 

Co-occurring conditions 

When depression occurs alongside another mental health disorder, it may be called a co-occurring condition. Conditions with a high comorbidity with depression include anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcohol use disorder.

Anxiety can contribute to depression because symptoms can make it harder for individuals to feel connected with those around them. Further, imbalances of a chemical messenger in the brain called serotonin can cause both anxiety and depression.

Substance use

Substance use disorders may disrupt social bonds as well, alongside chemical causes. The positive feelings that some people associate with alcohol result from alcohol mimicking naturally occurring feel-good chemicals in the brain. Over time, alcohol use could prevent the receptors for these chemicals from working correctly, making it increasingly challenging to feel positive with or without alcohol. People living with depression are at risk of resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

Many people drink more when stressed or drink as a way of self-medicating for anxiety symptoms. In this way, stress mixed with alcohol may create a vicious cycle that could eventually lead to depression. If you think you might have a problematic relationship with alcohol, your doctor could guide you to resources to help you drink less and manage stress healthily.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

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Is stress causing you to feel sad, lonely, or distressed?

How to find support for stress and depression

Many clients experiencing symptoms of stress alongside depression or anxiety may meet with a psychiatrist or a psychologist to discuss treatment. Although medication can be effective, talk therapy is one of the most recommended options for depression. Studies have also found it more effective than other methods of treatment. 

You do not have to have a mental health condition or diagnosis to see a therapist. Many clients seek mental health care to learn stress reduction techniques and talk through life events. If you feel nervous about seeing a therapist, it might help you to look at a therapist or counselor how you look at your regular doctor; you don’t only go to your doctor when you aren’t healthy; you go to your doctor to stay healthy. Everyone experiences stress, but you don’t need to wait for severe impacts to seek help. 

Your health insurance plan might cover seeing a counselor or therapist if you have a diagnosed mental illness or medical reason for seeking support. However, it could be expensive if your health insurance plan doesn’t cover counseling or therapy. In this case, your doctor may be able to direct you toward cost-effective resources like support groups. 

If you prefer to talk with a counselor or therapist personally, you still have options. Meeting with a counselor or therapist online is often more affordable than meeting in person and may be easier to fit into a busy schedule. For those living in rural areas or where therapists have long wait lists, an online therapist may also be more convenient. 

Online talk therapy, often implemented via cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), continues to show increasing effectiveness as a treatment for depressive disorders. In one literature review of 373 articles, researchers concluded that internet-based CBT effectively treated and managed various mental health concerns, including stress, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and substance use disorders. 

Takeaway

For people experiencing symptoms of stress and depression, it may sometimes be challenging to envision the light at the end of the tunnel. Depression is a highly treatable mental health condition, and online therapists are available and qualified to work with you to treat unwanted symptoms. Take the first step by contacting a provider through a platform like BetterHelp, where you can be matched with a compassionate online counselor within 48 hours.

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