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Depression

Stress has an enormous impact on mood. In the short run, it can make you feel lousy. In the long run, it increases the chances you'll become depressed.

If you are facing a new stress -- one that is bothering you now, but is likely to pass -- your symptoms may pass once the stress is gone. Sometimes that is called an adjustment disorder. The term adjustment disorder is used when someone develops symptoms within a few months of a known stress.

In one sense, mild symptoms of depression or anxiety are a normal response to stress. Stress itself is an expected part of life, from childhood on. Learning to manage developmental hurdles and hazards is a key to growing up.

There is no clear benchmark to indicate when stress is too much, or at what point a normal response becomes a disorder. Yet, whenever there is emotional discomfort or functioning begins to suffer, it makes sense to get help. Adjustment disorders respond readily to treatment.

Let's try to put stress reactions in some context. Human responses to stress and trauma are extremely varied. In fact, the most common response to stress is to develop no psychiatric disorder at all. This is certainly a tribute to the human capacity for coping. Still, certain kinds of problems are worth noting.

The death of a parent has an enormous impact whenever it occurs in childhood, although the consequences can be eased if there is adequate support for family members. Unfortunately, a death in early childhood usually means life has also been turned upside down for the surviving parent. Other potential caregivers are also likely to be grieving. The meaning of such a loss remains significant throughout life and there is a higher risk for depression.

Sexual abuse and physical abuse are also associated with higher rates of depression. In addition to the impact on self-esteem, it is thought that such experiences induce physiological stress responses that may increase the vulnerability to depression.

Cumulative stress seems also to be important, and may have a multiplying effect.

Descriptions of stress are very personal. Anyone who reports a stressful experience is reporting on their own perception of it. Researchers therefore have some difficulty comparing reports of stress from person to person. Put two people in the same circumstances and they are likely to describe it differently. People who report stress may be innately less resistant to the ups and downs of "normal" life, or they have in fact been exposed to higher levels of stress or trauma.

Do stressful experiences cause depression or does a depressed person experience more stress than other people in the same situation? Probably both. The more stresses you have, the more likely you are to become depressed. And the more episodes of depression you have, the easier it is to become depressed after a relatively small stress.

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