Mental disorders cause the same stress that fuels them

Headshot of Dr Katherine Rnic

Dr. Katerina Rnic

Part of what makes depression so hard to overcome is that people with depression tend to behave in ways that lead to more stress in their lives, and the stress in turn fuels mental illness.

This feedback loop was originally thought to be unique to depression, but psychology researchers at UBC recently revealed Psychological bulletin that this is a more widespread problem. Analyzing several decades of studies, they have shown that many mental disorders are perpetuated by generating stress. In a separate study published in Review of clinical psychologyhave identified the factors that put people at risk of becoming trapped in this vicious cycle.

We talked to Dr. Katerina Rnic (she she), a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of depression, anxiety, and stress, on the team’s findings.

What is stress generation theory?

Stress is a major risk factor for physical and mental health problems, including depression. We all experience stress, but some of us are exposed to more stressors than others. Stress generation theory helps us understand why.

This theory suggests that people with depression, in particular, are more likely to behave in ways that contribute to experiencing greater stressors. For example, depressed people may be more likely to argue with others or put off completing important tasks at work or home. This can lead to more stressors in their relationships, work, education, finances, health, and all areas of life.

The theory was initially developed to help us understand why depression can be chronic and long-lasting. But what about other mental disorders? Although there are now 30 years of research on stress generation, there has been disagreement as to whether this phenomenon is specific to depression. Does generating stress affect people with other mental disorders?

What did you find?

We conducted a meta-analysis that combined and analyzed all research on stress generation to date and found evidence of stress generation not only in depression, but in many mental health disorders such as anxiety, personality disorders, childhood disruptive substances and disorders.

We did this by looking at two different types of stressors: dependent and independent. Dependent stressors occur at least in part as a result of a person’s actions. Independent stressors, on the other hand, are events that people could not have caused on their own, such as a natural disaster or the death of a relative from old age. We saw that people with mental disorders experienced more addictive stressors, in particular, than those without mental disorders. This provides the strongest support yet for the stress generation theory, as it suggests that people with mental disorders are actively generating more stressors. This is crucial because it also means that people who suffer from mental health issues have some leverage and power over the amount of stress they experience.

We have also seen that these dependent stressors perpetuate mental disorders over time, creating a vicious cycle of symptoms and stress.

Does generating stress affect some people more than others?

Our primary finding was that the effects of stress generation were strongest among children, adolescents, and young adults. The elderly also generate stress, but not to the extent that young people do.

However, we found no differences in stress generation by gender, race, or geographic location. Thus, stress generation appears to be a universal phenomenon affecting people from diverse backgrounds.

What does your research suggest about potential solutions?

Our findings point to important opportunities for interventions to help people break out of this vicious circle.

We found several risk factors that predicted dependent stressors over time, including interpersonal behaviors, negative thinking, excessive self-standards, and avoidance, among others. Addressing these issues together during treatment can be crucial to efforts to break the cycle of stress and mental health issues.

The fact that stress generation is a universal phenomenon also suggests that the development of interventions targeting stress generation through diagnoses is a promising next step. Such interventions could be effective for large numbers of people, regardless of their specific diagnosis.

#Mental #disorders #stress #fuels
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