According to NIH, 63.8% of adults suffering from depression have severe impairment from their depressive episodes, and 22.8% of all adults suffering from an anxiety disorder have severe impairment. 7% of all adults in the U.S. suffer from episodes of major depression, and 31% of US adults have an experience with an anxiety disorder in their life.
Young adults, ages 18-25, have a high prevalence of depression at over 13% and anxiety at 22.3%. This means it is likely that in a college lecture hall of a 100 students, at least 13 of those students have had a depressive episode and 22 have experienced an anxiety disorder.
Mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, can be debilitating and affect all types of people. The stress of these disorders can also take a physiological toll on your body – causing physical symptoms of headaches, muscle tension, loss of appetite as well as emotional symptoms of irritability and indecisiveness, among others.
A body normally reacts to acute stress through allostasis by reaching a state of stability through change.
All the important systems that are involved in stress, whether that be your autonomic nervous system (responsible for your parasympathetic “fight or flight” response and your sympathetic “digest and rest” response), your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, or your cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems, are necessary in your body’s protection from stress (McEwen, 1998)
In the short-term, stress is important to aid in our response to physical state and cope with environmental concerns. Stress, regardless of how it takes form for you, impacts your physiological response, especially over the long term.
When you perceive something as stressful, whether that be a major life event or a stressful environmental stimulus, your body has a physiological response to protect yourself from the disruption of homeostasis (Bizik et al., 2013). Your specific individual differences in your genetics and experience as well as your behavioral responses in diet and exercise impact the way your stress systems respond (McEwen, 1998).
Typically, allostasis allows us to adapt to the stress, such that while you were scared and stressed the first time you interviewed for a job, you will not have the same strong physiological response every job interview you have from then on.
It is not that easy for everyone though. When your body does not respond to your stress adequately, it piles into an allostatic load – the wear and tear that stress has on the body and brain.
There are four main ways in which allostatic load occurs (McEwen, 1998).
- Frequent/chronic stress
- Lack of adaptation to repeated stressors of the same type
- Inability to terminate allostatic responses after stress finishes
- Inadequate response leads to overcompensatation in other systems
Those affected by depression and anxiety have more of an association of allostatic load than the typical population given the increase in stressful psychosocial factors contributing to their mental health (Bizik et al., 2013)
Regardless of the reason it develops, the result of an allostatic load can lead to obesity and hypertension, memory impairment, and increased cold severity to name a few of the complicated problems from long term allostatic loads (McEwen, 1998; Bizik et al., 2013; McEwen, 2017)
Some of these resulting problems are difficult to reverse, therefore the key is for you to prevent gaining this allostatic load. You can, of course, attempt to change some of your behaviors that make an allostatic load more common; by exercising more, having a healthier diet, taking breaks, and having a strong support network. However, some individual differences cannot be changed.
The good news is that research on brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to change as a result of experience) shows that existing allostatic loads may be reduced through brain-body interactions of pharmacological and behavior therapeutic interventions (McEwen, 2017; Fava et al., 2019).
Therefore, if you or a loved one is dealing with such disorders as depression or anxiety, or have high levels of chronic stress, it is important you seek care from professionals to help you unload.
So – make sure to take a break and help your body respond better to stress by taking care of yourself physically and mentally!
For more information about the prevalence and symptoms of mental health disorders, please check out the mental health information on the NIH website.
If you or a loved one is suffering from a mental illness, please refer to these support resources that the NIH lists for crisis numbers and finding the right provider.
Bizik, G., Picard, M., Nijjar, R., Tourjman, V., McEwen, B. S., Lupien, S. J., & Juster, R. P. (2013). Allostatic load as a tool for monitoring physiological dysregulations and comorbidities in patients with severe mental illnesses. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 21(6), 296-313.
Fava, G. A., McEwen, B. S. Guidi, J., Gostoli, S., Offidani, E., & Sonino, N. (2019). Clinical characterization of allostatic overload. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 108, 94-101.
McEwen, B. S. (1998). Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators. New England Journal of Medicine, 338(3), 171-179.
McEwen, B. S. (2017). Allostasis and the epigenetics of brain and body health over the life course: The brain on stress. JAMA psychiatry, 74(6), 551-552.