Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Stress, anxiety and depression


Stress, anxiety and depression

Articles about the Stress - Anxiety - Depression cycle, and how to avoid and cope with these problems.

Inner voiceThe old saying goes 'Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness' - but we all have voices in our head and that certainly doesn't mean we're mad.

These voices tell us to 'do this' or 'do that' or 'don't forget this' or 'you're fat'. This is perfectly normal.

It only becomes abnormal when the voices are external (auditory hallucinations) or obsessive (we feel we can't stop them and they play over and over again in a compulsive way).

The voices I'm referring to here are involuntary or automatic thoughts (as opposed to deliberate/conscious thoughts).

Some voices are positive, for example:

The problem solving voice (I know what I'll do!)

The voice of reason ('Come on now – be reasonable')

The creative voice ('That's a good idea!')

The Philosopher - that transcendent/reflective voice that wants us to believe there really is a God/afterlife.

Some are negative, such as:

The worrier (You have to/should/ought to')

The imp (that leads us astray – 'Go on – have that cigarette')

The critic/the judge – can be harsh and unforgiving – making us constantly doubt ourselves and put ourselves down ('You're wrong'/' they're wrong').

Man in a caveLife is scary – are you stuck up the back of the cave?

Fans of Plato will remember his allegory of people who only see life as shadows on the back of a cave – because that's the only reality they see, they believe the shadows to be reality. They can't see what is actually real because they're chained in such a way that they only see the back of the cave.

I have come to see our survival mechanism produced by the old, survival brain (the limbic brain) as a kind of chain that, in order to protect us from threats in a stressful world, can act as a kind of defence, the purpose of which is not to make us face the back of the cave, but literally force us there psychologically.

We are stuck up the back of a virtual cave, in depression and withdrawal from people and the world. The survival mechanism does this in order to protect us from threats, real or imagined.

As previously discussed, most anxiety and depression is caused by stress (see this) and when we have spent enough time stressed (ramping up for fight or flight) but we're not fighting or running away – Mind/Body/Brain says 'enough – life is too scary – up the back of the cave for you!'

So it sucks our motivation out of us, makes us tired and makes us want to withdraw up to the back of the cave where it's safe, quiet and there are no threats or demands. And there we wait, for the threat to go away. But it doesn't.

If you search for 'causes of depression' chances are you won't come across stress, and yet stress is the cause of most kinds of depression (apart from, for example Bi-Polar Disorder and Seasonal Affective Disorder).

If stress is almost always the cause of anxiety and depression – why don't we hear that? More often it's that we have a 'chemical imbalance' in our brain. This of course can be corrected with Anti-Depressant drugs right? Well in some cases. But in many cases where these drugs are prescribed for anxiety and depression – they just don't work.

Anxiety and depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance. Bi-Polar Disorder (or Manic-Depression) is – but one of the most effective treatments for this is chemical Lithium, discovered by an Australian psychiatrist, John Cade.

SSRI's do work for some people and if they've worked for you that's great. But many studies have shown that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy that tries to address dysfunctional thoughts and behaviours works equally effectively. I'd list all the studies but they're too numerous.

So how does stress cause anxiety and depression?

If we have depression caused by dysfunctional thought – why do we have those thoughts? Why do we worry? Other animals don't worry – they just instinctively act.

We have our smart brain (we've evolved to have that) so why does it sometimes seem so dumb?

Doorway in India 2007Have you ever gone into a room and completely forgotten what you were there for?

Age doesn't seem to be an issue here either, it happens at any age.  So why? 

One answer, according to a study in 20111, is that it could be the simple act of walking through the door -  and that action may cause a change in our brain.

The study found that our memory could change when we pass through the doorway because doors are a portal between one environment and another - e.g. the living room to the bedroom. 

The brain registers the new environment at the moment of going through the door and takes a second to process the memory from the previous environment (so  you won't forget where  you came from) - and to register where you are now.  Researchers called this an 'event boundary'.