While many struggle with either high levels of stress, repeated bouts of anxiety or the sense of falling into depression, it’s helpful to know the physiology (how your physical body functions) behind these challenging mind and body sensations. From an energetic perspective there is a range of Traditional Chinese Medicine meridians and Hindu Chakras that could be out of balance which I’ll discuss in the next article. For the moment, let’s look at what’s possibly happening in the physical body when it comes to stress, anxiety and depression and their connection to each other. Stay with me while we go through anatomy and physiology descriptions; by the end of the article you’ll see connections between stress, anxiety and depression and your body and from there you can start to understand your struggle and make changes.
Understanding the HPA Axis and the hormones that regulate stress
The HPA Axis stands for “Hypothalamus – Pituitary gland – Adrenal glands Axis”. The hypothalamus is an extremely important section of the brain that links the nervous system (a network of neurons that travel to and from your organs) to the endocrine system (hormones that regulate mood, growth and metabolism) via the pituitary gland (another important section of the brain). The flow of information (neurotransmitters and hormones) goes back and forth like this: HYPOTHALAMUS ⇒ PITUITARY GLAND ⇒ ADRENAL GLANDS.
Your adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system as they release hormones that help you to manage stress. Such hormones include:
- cortisol – released in response to stress and is produced during the early morning hours of sleep (if you’re not sleeping well then you’re not making enough cortisol to help with stress management and melatonin for feeling good)
- epinephrine (E) and norepinephrine (NE) – the ‘fight or flight’ response to life’s events (when challenged, do you fight or run?)
- aldosterone – a steroid hormone that increases blood volume and water retention
- androgens – sex hormones
What is meant to occur along the HPA Axis is that once the momentary stressful situation has passed, the body relaxes and stops releasing stress hormones. However, this is not the case for many of us in this fast paced world. Stress levels remain high even after we’ve come home from work or put the kids to bed or paid off a financial debt. The physical and emotional responses to stress can then cause anxiety and when this is not treated, you can risk exhaustion and/or depression. This is a key point that links high stress levels to anxiety and exhaustion or depression. HIGH STRESS LEVELS ⇒ ANXIETY ⇒ DEPRESSION. Let’s understand a bit more about the body before we further explain this link.
The emotional connection
Other than stress, the HPA Axis is also involved with digestion, the immune system (your body’s protection against disease), mood and emotions, sexuality, and energy storage and use (to feel energised or to become exhausted). And not only does the hypothalamus talk to your adrenal glands it also talks to your limbic system which is strongly involved with emotions. In particular, the amygdala. This emotional center releases messages to the hypothalamus which in turn releases messages to the nervous system as a response to primitive emotions such as fear, anxiety, fright, flight, fight, shock and even pleasure. Our body and brain remembers physical and emotional experiences and can be triggered to release these messages when faced with even a slightly similar situation or even bodily function – i.e. continual stress causing continual increase in heart rate which mimics anxiety – and so we become anxious.
Why is this important to know?
Think about the pathways of information signals between the hypothalaums and pituitary gland and the many functions of your body. If the hypothalamus or the pituitary gland is not functioning well (and this can be an energetic stress) then you could experience weight loss, uncharacteristic mood swings, repeated colds (continual release of cortisol may weaken your immune system), sleeping problems, lack of sexual desire or exhaustion. There’s only so long that you’re body can maintain high stress levels before it runs out of ‘umph’, or rather it runs out of the storage of hormones and nutrients needed to manage stress and anxiety.
The British Society for Neuroendocrinology states that “Depression is characterised by an over activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that resembles the neuro-endocrine response to stress. These HPA axis abnormalities participate in the development of depressive symptoms.”
Start with the reflection process
If you suffer from depression, it’s a good idea to look back over the two years prior to the start of your depression. During this time were you stressed? Your body would have possibly been heavily pumping blood through the body, the heart rate is increased, you begin to sweat, can’t think clearly and feel what is known as ‘anxiety’. Do you remember also feeling anxious?
If you suffer from anxiety, the same question can be asked. Further more, what can you do to lower your stress levels to ensure you don’t become exhausted?
What triggers your stress and anxiety? Take note of when you’re feeling highly stressed, or when you start to feel anxious. What’s happening in your life at the time? These are what we call ‘triggers’. Sometimes in our past there can be an event that strongly activated our fight/flight response. Further down the track, smaller events occur that trigger the body’s memory into a fight/flight response. This response can seem unreasonable, but it’s just the body’s protective memory.
Help for stress, anxiety and depression
Common techniques include:
- Breathing techniques are useful for those that are shallow or fast breathers; make sure you breathe in and out slowly and deeply counting to three (in – one two three, out one two three)
- Visualisations of places that you find relaxing; close your eyes and take yourself to a beach, the bush, on top of a mountain, your bedroom
- Relaxing activities such as yoga, gentle exercise (some people with anxiety find that strenuous exercise brings on their anxiety due to the increase in heart rate), music, reading, cooking, spending time with people that you find relaxing, getting a massage
- A well balanced diet low in: sugars, fast releasing carbohydrates and caffeine
- ‘Rescue Remedy’ (a group of flower essences) can be bought at your local health food shop or chemist and is wonderful to take when you start to feel stressed, anxious or you can’t sleep
- Acupressure on your wrists and soles of your feet – by placing your hand across the underside of your wrist (one at a time or get a close friend/family member to hold both simultaneously) or the bottom of your feet you’ll bring positive energy into meridians and chakras that will relax and ground you
- Crystals which are easily found in crystal shops – Aquamarine (light green), Amazonite (light green), Amethyst (purple), Aventurine (green), Calcite (white), Garnet (dark red), Hematite (black/grey), Lepidolite (light purple), and Rose Quartz (pink). Just carry the crystal around and hold it in your hand when needed.
- Kinesiology is a beautiful modality that can bring balance back into your life through working with your physical, emotional, mental, energetic and spiritual bodies.
** It’s important to note that not all people follow this pathway of HIGH STRESS LEVELS ⇒ ANXIETY ⇒ DEPRESSION. This is only one possible explanation of the mind and body connection behind stress, anxiety and depression. This information is not intended as medical advice, rather it’s a discussion of mind – body links **
Articles and content by Kate Pamphilon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.