Stress leads to depression

In the short term, stress and anxiety drive us to overcome challenges and dangerous situations. Like when you realize you’re running dangerously low on coffee.

The uncomfortable feeling (stress) of potentially being without it motivates you to buy new coffee.

See? Stress can save your life when you experience it in healthy doses.

Though the above example was meant to put a smile on your face, stress leading to depression is no laughing matter.

Now that the ice is broken, let’s get serious.

There is a reason we started off talking about the positive side of stress. 

We don’t want you (like most people out there) to live with unrealistic expectations of a stress-free life.

If you didn’t get nervous about a new job interview or about meeting your future in-laws, you’d never be compelled to put your best foot forward and give your best.

Yes, stress leads to depression. But this happens when we no longer know how to cope with life situations. If, however, we have effective ways to build resilience to stress, we can continue to live productive, fruitful, and blessed lives.

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On a side note: stress is not the only factor that leads to depression.

Different people go through depression for different reasons.

For example: thyroid disease, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), smoking, Facebook overload (yes, that’s actually a thing), where you live, lack of certain nutrients due to a poor diet, poor relationships and medication. 

If you think about it though, everything mentioned above is either a form of stress, is linked to stress, or results from stress.

That’s why this article focuses on how stress leads to depression.

When we understand the psychological mechanisms of how stress leads to depression, we can prevent it. 

What is stress?

Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion. In the modern world, the ‘fight or flight’ mode can still help us survive dangerous situations, such as reacting swiftly to a person running in front of our car by slamming on the brakes. The challenge is when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations. When blood flow is going only to the most important muscles needed to fight or flee, brain function is minimized. This can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’; a state that is a great hindrance in both our work and home lives.

All of us react differently toward stressful situations. Our reactions can be classified into three main categories:

Thanks to for the image.

Fight Mode

When you enter a state of stress, you feel agitated or aggressive toward others.

While this state of mind can save you in a life-threatening situation (for example, someone attacks you), it can ruin your relationships and cost you your reputation.

Flight Mode

This is the opposite of entering the fight mode.

Instead of wanting to ‘attack’ the problem head-on, you try to avoid it at all costs. While silence is golden most times, entering this kind of behaviour when confronted with a serious problem leads to more stress.

The reason being that the problem does not disappear and more often than not, it escalates, causing more stress

Freeze Mode

You neither fight nor flee from the stressful situation. When you experience stress, your energy kind of gets “locked” in your nervous system.

Think of situations where you found yourself holding your breath. 

I’m sure you will agree: none of the three ‘modes’ mentioned above is ideal.

  • You don’t want to become “that guy“ or “that woman” whom everyone avoids like the plague because you’ll snap if they look at you wrong.
  • You don’t want to run away from your problems today just to discover they’ve become much worse tomorrow.
  • And you don’t want to freeze when you’ve just been bitten by a poisonous spider and you need to do something about it.

If we can’t manage our reactions, we put ourselves at risk of experiencing the kinds of stress that leads to depression.

So, next time you’re in a stressful situation, consider your reactions. Always think about it afterward and ask yourself whether you could have handled it better, and how. Keep a stress journal and write about your experiences every day.

In a few months from now, you’ll be surprised at how you’ve adapted and grown to react better in most situations.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress. It is a feeling of fear and apprehension about what’s to come. The first day of school, going to a job interview, or giving a speech may cause most people to feel fearful and nervous. But if your feelings of anxiety are extreme, last for longer than six months, and are interfering with your life, you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety feels differently in different individuals. You might feel like you’re standing in the middle of a crumbling building with nothing but an umbrella to protect you. Or you might feel like you’re holding onto a merry-go-round going 65 mph and can’t do anything to slow it down. You might feel butterflies in your stomach, or your heart might be racing. You may experience nightmares, panic, or painful thoughts or memories that you can’t control. You may have a general feeling of fear and worry, or you may fear a specific place or event.

Symptoms of general anxiety include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Restlessness
  • thumbs-o-down Trouble concentrating
  • thumbs-o-down Difficulty falling asleep

The difference between Anxiety and an Anxiety disorder

Anxiety is a normal feeling of fear in response to a stressful situation. It comes and goes and does not interfere with your life. 

But when you experience fear almost every second of the day and you find yourself not doing the things you enjoy anymore, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Unchecked, an anxiety disorder leads to depression. 

Different anxiety disorders include: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is any regular exposure to stressors in your life such as a troubled marriage, a demanding career, or pesky neighbours.

On the other hand, it can also result from being unable to cope with a single event that happened to you.

Examples would be when you can’t get over your divorce, the death of a loved one, or the memories of an abusive relationship.

Can Chronic Stress cause depression?

Chronic stress plays a crucial role in the development of psychiatric diseases like anxiety disorders and depression. writes the following on the connection between stress and depression:

Stress – whether chronic, such as taking care of a parent with Alzheimer’s, or acute, such as losing a job or the death of a loved one — can lead to major depression in susceptible people. Both types of stress lead to overactivity of the body’s stress-response mechanism. Sustained or chronic stress, in particular, leads to elevated hormones such as cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and reduced serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, which has been linked to depression.

Normally, after experiencing a stressful event such as a divorce or the death of a loved one, you would go through a grieving process.

When you have accepted what happened to you, you can pick up the pieces and continue with life. 

But when your stress response fails to “shut off” after some time, it can lead to depression.

So, what would normally be considered acute stressors, turns into chronic stressors and ultimately leads to depression if not managed.

How can stress lead to depression: Lifestyle factors

Stress leads to depression most times because stressed people, more often than not, neglect themselves

They smoke more (or start smoking), use more alcohol, and become inactive. 

Bruce McEwen, PhD, author of The End of Stress as we Know It, says:

“Stress, or being stressed out, leads to behaviours and patterns that in turn can lead to a chronic stress burden and increase the risk of major depression.”

Many of the changes in the brain during an episode of depression resemble the effects of severe, prolonged, stress. 

It’s difficult for many people to distinguish between stress and depression.

How stress leads to depression: Workplace factors

As with all forms of stress, workplace stress can be beneficial as long as the demands you face don’t overwhelm your coping abilities.

Positive stress enhances alertness and productivity.

But prolonged and excessive stress at work damages mental health and overall wellness. Since work takes up such a large portion of life, it’s important to keep work-related stress as low as possible. Left unchecked, it can influence every other aspect of your life and possibly lead to depression.

Feelings of frustration, guilt, unhappiness, irritability, racing negative thoughts, and a constant state of excessive worrying are all signs of stress.

More often than not, the underlying cause is work-related stress.

The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) states, “If stress becomes persistent and low-level, however, all parts of the body’s stress apparatus (the brain, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and muscles) become chronically over-activated or under-activated. Such chronic stress may produce physical or psychological damage over time.”

The importance of effectively coping with workplace stress cannot be stressed (pun intended) enough.

Helen Sanders from Health Ambition wrote an excellent article on how to deal with stress at work. The article is about implementing easy, practical techniques to relieve workplace stress.

Please take some time to read the article here.

Now that we understand what stress is and how it can lead to depression, let’s talk about how to build effective resilience so we can be better equipped to deal with it.

How to build resilience against stress and be happy instead?

Important notice: These techniques are a means of either preventing the onset of depression or the recurrence of depression.

They are not guaranteed to prevent depression or other stress-related conditions. Stress-related conditions, including depression, are serious.

Be honest with yourself. If you are concerned that you already have depression, talk to someone who can help or guide you.

The following lifestyle changes can help reduce stress levels and boost your resilience, reducing the risk of depression:


Moderate physical activity releases mood-enhancing chemicals  throughout your body.

It also stimulates certain hormones and neurotransmitters that help to reduce stress.

Commit yourself to at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, five to six days a week. 

Exercise doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Check out this post to learn about making exercise fun.

2.Build strong, supportive relationships

Community, no matter how small, buffers anyone from the effects of adversity.

Isolation, on the other hand, is a risk factor for depression.

Moreover, negative and critical relationships are even more harmful  for the person who is on the verge of a break-down.

Stay away from negative people. Even if it’s your own family

While it may sound harsh, you need to consider whether they carry your best interests at heart.

Do you want to hear what a disappointment you are? Or how you need to get over yourself? Or how it’s not so bad?

Is that how you would talk to your loved one or best friend?

No? Then stay away. Mingle with people who will love and cherish you no matter what.

3.Meditate and pray

Studies have shown that these practices can be helpful, “retraining your brain circuits,” says Sternberg. “They have a positive effect on the emotional brain circuits.”

Meditation and prayer have been shown to:

  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Create a sense of inner peace.
  • Increase longevity.
  • Reduce symptoms of depression.
  • Alleviate anxiety stress, and pain.
  • Help with insomnia and physical symptoms associated with chronic illnesses such as heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and cancer.

4.Eat well and don't drink to much alcohol

A well-nourished body is a resilient body. Food influences stress and anxiety.

Stressed people resort to DIScomfort food, drink more than they should, become inactive, and learn unhealthy habits like smoking.

Don’t let it happen to you. Keep eating healthy so your body can do its job when you become more stressed than usual.

5.Make time for yourself

All you need is to break the cycle from time to time.

In many cases, too many mundane things build up until one day… BOOM.

Schedule “me-time” to pursue creative pursuits or a hobby. And take mini-vacations whenever you can to reduce excessive stress levels. 


Everyone is different. But on average, we need eight hours of good sleep per day.

Set certain rules for yourself, like turning off all the technology in your home at 21:00. 

Try to keep the time you go to bed and the time you wake up consistent, even over weekends.

Read this article from for more tips on how to sleep better.


Stress and anxiety can be unpleasant to deal with.

They can have negative effects on your physical health if untreated for long periods of time.

While some amount of stress and anxiety in life is expected and shouldn’t be cause for concern, it’s important to recognize when the stress in your life is causing negative consequences.

Prevent stress from getting the best of you by building resilience through the techniques discussed above. Here is another article about stress management techniques.

If you ever feel like your stress is becoming unmanageable, reach out to someone you trust and ask them to help you find the support you need.

Helpful Videos

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  • Depression: The 7 Differences Between Women & Men
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  • Love Someone Who Has Depression? This is What You Need to Know
  • What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Depression – And What to Say Instead
  • Why it’s Okay… to be Depressed

Author: Melissa Niemann

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