A relentless cycle: How Stress Fuels Mental Health Disorders

Mental Health

Overcoming depression proves to be an arduous task due to the tendency of individuals with this condition to exhibit behaviors that contribute to heightened stress in their daily lives. Consequently, this stress further exacerbates the manifestation of mental health illness.

This feedback loop was initially considered exclusive to depression, but recent research by UBC psychology scholars, as published in Psychological Bulletin, suggests that it is a more widespread concern. By examining research spanning several decades, they have unveiled that numerous mental disorders maintain their existence by creating stress. A distinct investigation featured in the Clinical Psychology Review has successfully pinpointed the factors that predispose individuals to becoming ensnared in this perpetual cycle.

What is the theory of ‘stress generation’?

Stress represents a substantial peril to both physical and mental well-being, encompassing conditions like depression. We all encounter stress, but certain individuals face more stressors than others. Stress generation theory helps us grasp the reasons behind this.

This theory suggests that individuals with depression, specifically, have a higher inclination to partake in actions that lead to experiencing more significant stressors. For instance, individuals with depression might be more inclined to engage in arguments with others or procrastinate important tasks at work or home. As a result, this may give rise to a buildup of stressors in their relationships, employment, education, finances, health, and all facets of life.

Initially devised to comprehend the chronic and enduring nature of depression, the question arose: Does stress generation affect people with other mental disorders as well?

Mental Health: What were the findings?

A meta-analysis was conducted, amalgamating and analyzing all the existing research on stress generation, revealing evidence for stress generation not only in depression but also across various mental health disorders, Examples include anxiety, personality disorders, substance use, and disruptive disorders during childhood.

Two kinds of stressors were examined: dependent and independent. Dependent stressors are, to some extent, an outcome of an individual’s actions, whereas independent stressors encompass events beyond an individual’s control, like natural disasters or the passing of a relative due to old age. The study indicated that people with mental disorders experienced more dependent stressors, particularly, than those without mental disorders. This provides robust support for stress generation theory, implying that individuals with mental disorders actively generate heightened stressors. Crucially, this also means that people grappling with mental health problems possess some agency in their experience of stress.

Furthermore, it was observed that these dependent stressors perpetuate mental disorders over time, leading to a vicious cycle of symptoms and stress.

Does stress generation affect certain individuals more than others?

The primary finding was that stress generation effects were most pronounced among children, adolescents, and young adults. While older adults also experience stress generation, it is not to the same extent as younger individuals.

However, no significant differences in stress generation were found based on gender, race, or geographic location. Thus, stress generation appears to be a universal phenomenon that impacts people from diverse backgrounds.

What implications does your research have for potential solutions?
The findings point to crucial opportunities for interventions to break individuals out of this vicious cycle.

Several risk factors were identified, predicting dependent stressors over time, including interpersonal behaviors, negative thoughts, excessive self-standards, and avoidance, among others. Addressing these factors collectively during treatment could be essential in efforts to break the cycle of stress and mental health problems.

Moreover, the universality of stress generation suggests that developing interventions targeting stress generation across various diagnoses is a promising next step. Such interventions could prove effective for a large number of individuals, regardless of their specific diagnosis.

Also Read: Decoding the Complexity of Psychological Stress


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