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Chasing Away the Blues: Depression Is a Symptom of Stress... and Exercise Is a Treatment

We all know that exercise is essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle... and we all know how easy it is to skip that workout when life gets challenging. Stress management (of all kinds) is nearly impossible when life gets too busy.
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I'm a total stressed-out mess. It's so ironic, because I literally teach a class on how bad stress is for our bodies, and yet I have a hard time internalizing the lessons. There's just so much to do! There is no doubt that our society puts a lot of pressure on us to take on more than we can handle. In our pursuit of success, we find ourselves juggling hefty workloads and ever-increasing work hours, navigating the demands of family, friends, and spouses, trying to keep the bank accounts balanced, and make occasional time for that person in the mirror. We all want to achieve our goals, be successful, and stay happy, but all at what cost? Often, it is our health, mental and physical, that loses the battle for our attention.

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Sure, stress is bad... but did you know it causes symptoms of depression?

Many of us know that physical and mental health is impaired when someone is stressed. "Yeah, okay, if I'm stressed out I might keel over from a heart attack someday, but that isn't something to worry about today." WRONG. Stress is the leading cause for many disorders (autoimmune, cardiovascular, metabolic, digestive, etc.), it weakens our immune system, putting us at risk for all kinds of infections and making the progression of many diseases worse. AND it sets off a cascade of hormones and enzymes that make us feel bad all by themselves.

Stress will literally work through the immune system to cause symptoms that make you feel sick, probably for the purpose of getting you to slow down and take care of yourself. In response to stress, there is an increased production of cytokines, which trigger prostaglandins and stimulate the hypothalamus to produce fever, sleepiness, lack of energy, lack of appetite, and loss of sex drive. Except for fever, most of those symptoms are going to sound familiar as the hallmarks of depression.

Depression is one of the leading causes of medical disability. However, researchers over the last decade have begun to view depression not as an illness by itself, but as a symptom -- an emotional fever -- that indicates something deeper is wrong. We can treat a fever with Tylenol to bring our temperature down, but that doesn't cure the underlying reason for the fever. We need to know what's causing the fever so we can treat it properly -- is it the flu or strep throat or pneumonia? When it comes to depression, there are likely to be many different causes and many different treatments. But one thing we know is that depression and stress are riding along hand-in-hand. People suffering from depression tend to have increased levels of glucocorticoids (the stress hormone), indicating that a hallmark of depression is stress.

Our brains' reaction to stress and depression

Depressives suffer from severe memory loss, language impairments, reduced reasoning and intelligence, disrupted spatial perception, and so much more. And stress is the leading cause of these debilitating symptoms.

Stress hormones and increased metabolic activity put our brains at risk of damage. Specifically, the hippocampus: our brain's memory center and site for directing the performance of cognitive tasks. When metabolic activity is high, neurons within the hippocampus are threatened with overstimulation or exposure to toxins, which may destroy these cells. Consequently, we are at risk of deterioration in memory and reduced success in performing simple, everyday cognitive tasks.

Putting these pieces of the puzzle together, we can view depression as an extension of our response to chronic stress.

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Jumping Jacks: A way to shake off the stress

Medications and counseling are at the frontline for ditching depression and its symptoms, but what about exploring exercise as a way to reduce the damage that stress and depression can inflict on our brains and our bodies?

Exercise has been studied increasingly as a prescription for people suffering from mental health conditions, including ADHD, anxiety, and depression (all of which are aggravated by stress). The idea here is that exercise gives your active sympathetic nervous system (your fight-or-flight responses that are going haywire with all that stress hormone coursing through your veins) something to do with its energy. That system is wired to increase your heart rate and blood pressure and send blood to your muscles so you can exercise... so get up and move! I tell students to do a few jumping jacks during their exams to shake off the jitters. While they report feeling a bit silly, some really appreciate the technique and find it helps settle them.

Studies have replaced antidepressants with exercise, and results support physical activity as a treatment. For example, in 2001 a study was performed using three treatments groups: depression treated with exercise, exercise plus antidepressants, and antidepressants alone. Results showed a decrease in depression symptoms across all three treatment groups, and interestingly, no difference between groups. While this suggests that antidepressants and exercise are equivalent for treating depression, it also brings to question: Why medicate when exercise can naturally cure symptoms? The side effects of many drugs can be nearly as debilitating as depression itself, while the side effects of exercise include an easier time fitting into my pants. (Important side note here: Do not stop taking medications prescribed by your doctor! Add the exercise, don't replace!)

Exercise is so good for your brain

Exercise is well known for its ability to help you "clear your head." Loads of studies have shown how exercise improves cognitive function and allows for more straightforward thinking. This is especially beneficial to those facing depression and battling mangled thought processes (a hallmark of depression is disordered thinking and inability to clearly assess challenges).

Another plus: Working out causes the release of endorphins in the brain, which puts our bodies in a pleasurable state, thereby enhancing mood. This makes exercise a good, positive reinforcer for those combating chronic stress and depression.

The hard part is doing it

We all know that exercise is essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle... and we all know how easy it is to skip that workout when life gets challenging. Stress management (of all kinds) is nearly impossible when life gets too busy.

Make sure to do something you love to do! Exercise generally makes you feel good, but only as long as you like it. There is no need to push yourself to do a workout regimen that you can't stand, or commit yourself to something that simply doesn't fit into your busy schedule. Doing this just turns exercise into another stressor in your life -- which is definitely not what the doctor ordered.

Also, don't move too fast. There is no need to pound out ten-mile runs or crush a 250-pound bench press. In fact, science shows us that better fitness does not equate to better brain function. Too much exercise can actually be a stressor for your body and your brain. It's all about balance.

*Huge shout out to my student, Claudia Flink, who helped with this post!