A friend of mine called the other day, looking for guidance. The changes in routine, isolation and loneliness resulting from the ongoing measures to manage the global pandemic are having a major impact on her mother’s mental health.
Her story isn’t unusual. Even people who have never had trouble with anxiety or depression are feeling the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. And for those who already struggle with mental health diagnoses, the struggle is even greater.
This is a serious consequence of the safety measures that have been put in place, and it deserves some of my time and attention. Anxiety and depression can be linked to hormonal imbalances brought on by stress – and who isn’t under a lot of stress these days?
We may not be able to eliminate the uncertainty and fear that abound lately, but that doesn’t mean we simply have to live with the resulting depression and anxiety. The adrenal glands play a large role in balancing hormones properly, and balanced hormones may relieve the emotional strain so many people are facing.
Let’s take a look at the function of your adrenal glands, depression, and the link between the two. Then, I’ll give you some practical strategies for managing stress to help alleviate anxiety and depression.
The important functions of the adrenal glands
If you don’t already know what your adrenal glands do, it’s important to understand that first. These small, triangular shaped glands sit on top of each kidney, and are made up of the adrenal cortex and the adrenal medulla. The outside part, the cortex, produces hormones necessary to survive, including cortisol and aldosterone. The medulla produces other hormones, like adrenaline, that serve important functions even though you can survive without them.
One of the most important functions of the adrenal glands is to help you respond to stress. Adrenaline is familiar to most people, and they understand that it helps prepare your body to spring into action in stressful situations.
Less familiar are some of the other hormones. Your adrenals will produce these even when no obvious stressors are present. In fact, they mustmanufacture these hormones – you can’t live without them!
Cortisol is one of these vital hormones. Cortisol has a whole range of essential functions, including helping to manage the conversion of food to energy, helping regulate blood pressure and cardiovascular activity, decreasing inflammation and managing immune responses in the body.
Cortisol also triggers the “flight, fight or freeze” response which allows your body to respond appropriately to threats. When this response occurs, your body releases energy, sends your senses into high alert, and slows digestion. In other words, it shuts down functions that won’t impact immediate survival.
Here’s the problem…this response is supposed to be temporary. But in times of constant stress, your adrenals may continually pump out cortisol, resulting in severely imbalanced levels. That means they aren’t making other hormones, which sets off a major chain reaction and causes numerous uncomfortable symptoms – including mood changes like depression and anxiety.
Internal stress causes as much damage as external stressors
Here’s something else a lot of people don’t realize: the stress that comes from inside causes as much trouble as external stressors. That’s why it’s essential to identify internal stress – especially these days – and do whatever you can to combat it.
It’s fairly obvious that being cooped up inside, isolated from loved ones, and constantly bombarded with media reports about the virus and the world’s response to it are causing stress. And if deemed an essential employee, there’s the stress of continuing to work and the safety measures necessary when coming and going from home. Sudden job loss, children home from school, bills coming in with no income to pay them with – all of these things are external stressors that most people can identify.
But there can be a lot more going on under the surface that’s not so easy to point too – but it’s still causing a major stress response. Fear, guilt, anger, sadness, feeling of inadequacy for not being able to provide for your family, the fear that nothing will ever be the same again, uncertainty about how to even move through the day – all of this adds up to a lot of internal stress.
And then there’s the fact that external stressors can stir up internal stress from long ago! It’s so important to realize that all stress can have the same impact on your body – so it all needs to be addressed!
Understanding the Connection Between Depression and Stress
Not one person that I’ve talked to in the last few weeks has said they haven’t felt anysadness, fear, or anxiety. I’m not sure I’d believe them if they did! But that’s not the depression I’m talking about here. Responding to major losses, like the ones we’ve all experienced recently, brings on sadness and grief – but depression is so much more than that.
Depression can’t be “pushed through” by ignoring it. Depression lasts a lot longer than a day or two, and trying to handle it simply by binge watching Netflix (which can be quite effective as a short term coping mechanism) could cause even more harm! While symptoms can range from very mild to severe, depression is a common, serious medical condition that impacts more than 300 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Depression can cause changes in appetite, difficulty sleeping, fatigue and lack of energy, difficulty focusing, and, in severe cases, suicidal thoughts. I’ve heard from clients that depression causes feelings of hopelessness and despair, disconnection, and an inability to even get out of bed sometimes.
Connections between adrenal function and depression have been studied for since at least the late 1960s. In 2011, a review article summarized four decades of research on depression and Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal activation. Results of this review study were consistent in showing HPA hyperactivity as a link between depression and increased risk of other conditions, including dementia, diabetes, coronary heart disease and osteoporosis.
Research has demonstrated that cortisol levels differ in people living with depression. For instance, it peaks earlier in the day than in those without depression and does not decrease as it should in the afternoon or evening. This ongoing supply of stress hormones can exhaust the body and may cause a dip in neurotransmitters like serotonin, which can lead to depression.
It can become a vicious cycle, with elevated cortisol levels leading to depression, and depression bringing on elevated cortisol levels. It’s certainly complicated, but it is not hopeless, and medication isn’t necessarily the answer, despite the speed at which many conventional medical practitioners will pull out a prescription pad.
If stress is contributing to depression, there are certainly natural ways to address the problem and reduce cortisol production. Let’s take a look at a few now.
Natural ways to relieve stress and keep depression at bay during these uncertain times
While stress relief may take a little more planning as we practice social distancing and many businesses, like yoga studios and massage therapists, are closed, it’s vitally important that you find what works for you, especially if you feel depression beginning to take hold. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Do something you love every single day
The way you participate in favorite activities has most likely changed. I love to ballroom dance, but for obvious reasons, there are no public dances. But I can practice my steps in my living room and discover new steps online to keep myself motivated and ready to return just as soon as I can. It’s all too easy, once you let something go, to never get back to it. The way you typically choose to spend free time can show you what’s important to you. Once you identify whatever that is, don’t give it up! Doing what you love is the perfect way to release tension and stress.
Pay close attention to lifestyle choices – diet, sleep and exercise
Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to be sure you are doing everything you can to relieve physical stress on your body. Diet, sleep and exercise are three of the most important tools you have to support your adrenal function. All three help stabilize hormones which in turn stabilizes mood.
Avoid processed foods, caffeine, sugar and alcohol as much as you can. Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables and lean meats (locally sourced, if possible) should make up the bulk of what you are eating. Pay attention to when you are eating as well, to avoid spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. Balanced meals and snacks include protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. And since it can be difficult to get all the nutrients your body needs from food, I recommend a daily multivitamin as well.
Sleep and exercise are both critical components in balancing hormones and stabilizing mood. A regular schedule for bedtime and waking, even if you have nowhere to go the next day, is best. Allow for 7-8 hours of sleep and establish a restful routine that will help you relax and drift off quickly. Research has shown that participating in regular exercise can boost energy and decrease fatigue as much as antidepressants do. But be careful not to overdo it, especially if your adrenals are already overtaxed. A walk around the block, online yoga or Pilates class, climbing up and down your stairs a few times, or a bike ride are all great ways to get yourself moving. But if none of those appeal to you, try something else – any movement works!
Clear your mind
Total relaxation is so hard to achieve when your mind won’t stop racing with questions and thoughts. So many women tell me the most stressful part of their day is when they lie down to sleep and are bombarded by all the thoughts they’ve pushed aside throughout the day. Now is a perfect time to try meditation, and there are plenty of apps to help you get started. Another approach is to allow yourself scheduled “worry time” where you don’t try to fight the anxious thoughts – but set a time, and when it rings, it’s time to let those worries go.
Finding a creative outlet, whether art, music, photography or writing, can allow you to express all the feelings that could be contributing to inner stress in a productive way. No one has to see what you create unless you want to share it, so really let yourself go – you might just be surprised at what you can do!
Soak up the Sun
Sunlight is so important for boosting mood. Vitamin D boosts serotonin and improves mood naturally. Sunlight is a great way to boost your Vitamin D levels, as long as you let yourself get a couple hours of sun per week without blocking the UVB rays with sunscreen. 15 minutes each day is all it takes. If you live where the sun isn’t strong enough to allow your body to produce sufficient Vitamin D, consider taking a daily Vitamin D supplement.
Reach out for support
One of the amazing things I’ve seen happening since the pandemic began is the outpouring of support people are offering to others. Every day I read another uplifting story of someone helping another – even complete strangers. It’s so important, especially when you feel depression pulling you down, to realize that you are not alone. Professional help is available by teletherapy, and friends can often give you a new perspective as well. It may also be important to talk to a trusted healthcare professional about how to manage hormonal imbalances that may be contributing to depression.
Find ways to be the helper
Fred Rogers often talked about looking for the helper in times of crisis. If you are able to bethe helper right now, you may find that your depression subsides as you help. You may not be able to volunteer in traditional ways right now, but try sewing cloth masks, collecting books to distribute to children, or contributing to a food drive or other need in your community.
Stressful times are upon us, and we don’t really know when they will subside. I have a feeling it will be a long time before we return to “normal,” if we ever do. Depression can have dire consequences when not attended to. Finding ways to treat yourself well and relieve stress is crucial. Supporting your adrenal glands can help. Noticing how stress is impacting your life allows you the power to do something about it!
If your depression is severe and you have thoughts of harming yourself, please call the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or get to a hospital immediately.