Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 9/20/2022
Stress can lead to plenty of undesirable side effects, depending on how severe it gets. And if you’re struggling with stress management, we know those effects of stress can be cause for, well, stress. The news is certainly no help, with tons of headlines claiming what stress can do to your body, that stress can cause eating disorders and depression and much, much more.
How much truth is there to all of these claims? Will a few bad weeks at work or a serious family problem lead to mental health disorders, mood disorders or an unhealthy relationship with food intake?
Well, here’s where it gets complicated.
It’s relatively easy to claim a “link” between stress and something — but proving that there’s a correlation (or a cause-and-effect relationship) is an entirely different matter.
Whether stress can lead you to depression or an eating disorder is also, unfortunately, a somewhat personal matter, because the risk factors for both eating disorders and depressive disorders can vary from one person to another, much in the same way two people can touch a surface with the common cold virus and only one of them will get sick.
Are you more susceptible to depression and eating disorders? Is stress a factor in you developing these conditions? It’s an important thing to understand, especially if you’re trying to prevent these problems.
Let’s talk about the relationship between stress and your mental health — and some ways to prevent stress from affecting your mental health no matter how much it is or isn’t a risk factor.
Stress isn’t just a feeling — in fact, feelings aren’t just feelings, either. Feelings are actually chemical reactions that occur in your brain. Your mood can be affected by neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
What does this have to do with stress?
Well, stress has its chemical footprint in something called cortisol — literally called “the stress hormone.”
Cortisol can subject your body to stress chronically, over periods of time, and when your levels of cortisol are chronically elevated, it can increase your risk of conditions like depression, can cause weight gain and, therefore, may increase the risk of eating disorders.
That’s the oversimplified explanation, but let’s look at these relationships in a little more detail.
Let’s start with what we know, which is that there is definitely a link between stress and eating disorders.
Stress has been regularly associated with eating disorders in studies — often a person suffering from an eating disorder has symptoms of stress and depression. But an association is hardly a cause-and-effect relationship. Not everyone who gets stressed stops eating or begins binge eating.
Sadly, stress and eating disorders haven’t shown a clear correlation like this in research thus far, except to say that when one is present, the other is more likely to appear.
Stress has, however, been more directly linked to your risk of mental disorders like depression, and studies have shown over time that not only does chronic stress increase your depression risk, but effective stress management can reduce your depression and anxiety disorders risk.
That’s valuable, significant information, especially compared with the less-than-clear relationship between stress and eating disorders.
There might be an explanation for eating disorders, however, in the relationship between depression and stress: because stress can cause depression, and because depression can lead to changes in appetite, the combination may increase your risk of an eating disorder.
When stress becomes difficult to manage, it can lead to depression. But figuring out when you’re on the verge of transitioning from one to another can be difficult.
Stress can cause a variety of problems like inflammation, insomnia, cognitive decline and heart issues — it’s definitely nothing to ignore.
But if your “stress” starts to cause any of the following symptoms of depression, it may be time to talk to a healthcare provider:
Eating disorder symptoms can be tricky. Exactly in the ways that occasional intense physical activity and occasional binge eating are not necessarily signs of binge-eating disorder, body dissatisfaction or body image issues.
The gray area of the relationship between eating disorders and stress is murky at best, but if you’re worried that an eating disorder may be coming out of the stress cloud in your daily life, the following signs and common symptoms should be on your watch list.
Seek professional help if you see obsessive concern with body weight and body shape or notice any of the following:
Significant Weight Loss
Significant Weight Gain
Extreme Restriction of Eating
Distorted Body Image
Fear of Gaining Weight
Low Self Esteem
Low Blood Pressure
Mental illness can be a vicious cycle of negative emotions and behaviors like social withdrawal or self-criticism.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and plenty of other disorders can destroy your quality of life.
But treating these issues needs a tailored approach.
Stress, eating disorders and depression are still very different things and, hopefully, you’ve learned from reading this that they each require different types of support to deal with.
One thing we can say they all have in common is that the type of treatment will start with a healthcare professional. The types of treatment you’re offered may vary depending on your own unique psychological symptoms.
Unmitigated stress, crushing eating disorder or runaway depression issues can all be fought more effectively when you have professional, trained help at your side helping you find the right kinds of support for your needs.
If you’re looking for a place to start that conversation, we can help. Our online therapy and mental health resources are a great place to find a healthcare provider, learn answers to your questions and even get medications prescribed for your mental health.
It’s one less thing you’ll have to stress about, which is a great relief when the list feels unmanageable already.