Total Harmony Medicine


Depression seen from neuroscience

Many people with depression blame themselves or feel stigmatized for being depressed. But that should not be the case. Depression is a disorder rooted in biology, and you can’t really blame it for its biology. By understanding the truth about how your brain works, people can reduce self-blame and stigma, and you can be the one to teach them.

In trying to convince people that depression is a biological condition, you may be unwittingly working against yourself. Because once people understand that it’s biological, they think that it won’t change.

It’s true that depression has a biological basis, but it’s also true that your biology is malleable and can be reshaped. For example, the people may have genes that put them at risk for depression, but genes are not destiny. They are not a blueprint for how you will turn out. They merely create an initial likelihood for your brain to develop in a particular way. But genes can be turned on or off, or upregulated or downregulated.

Brain activity and chemistry can be changed by making small changes in your thoughts, actions, interactions, and environment. If these changes are repeated over time, they can lead to neuroplasticity that literally reshapes the brain, and even results in the growth of new neurons.

Teaching people both that there is a biological basis for depression, and that their biology is malleable, helps to decrease stigma and pessimism. It can even create greater personal agency, allowing people suffering from depression to participate more in their own recovery.

Many methods to change brain activity and chemistry simply involve small life changes, like gratitude, physical exercise, mindfulness, deep breathing, social interaction, sleep habits, and more.

For example, simply visualizing the happiest times in your life changes serotonin production in a key mood circuit. Other studies show that just ten minutes of moderate exercise is enough to change the reactivity of the habit portion of the brain, making it easier to resist bad habits. In addition, repeating exercise over time, even light exercise, not only improves mood in depression, but also reduces stress hormone, cortisol, and many others. 

Popular tradition says that emotions reside in the heart. Science, however, traces the seat of your emotions to the brain. Certain areas of the brain help regulate mood. Researchers believe that, more important than the levels of specific brain chemicals, nerve cell connections, nerve cell growth, and the functioning of nerve circuits have a major impact on depression. Still, his understanding of the neurological underpinnings of mood is incomplete.

The use of this technology has allowed us to better understand which regions of the brain regulate mood and how other functions, such as memory, can be affected by depression. Areas that play a role in depression are the amygdala, thalamus, and hippocampus.

Research shows that the hippocampus is smaller in some depressed people. For example, in a functional MRI study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, they looked at 24 women who had a history of depression. On average, the hippocampus was between 9% and 13% smaller in depressed women compared to those who were not depressed. The more episodes of depression a woman had, the smaller the hippocampus was. Stress, which plays a role in depression, may be a key factor here, as experts believe that stress can suppress the production of new neurons in the hippocampus.

At some point, nearly everyone encounters stressful life events: the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, an illness, or a relationship spiraling downward. Some must cope with the early loss of a parent, violence, or sexual abuse. While not everyone who faces these stresses develops a mood disorder — in fact, most do not — stress plays an important role in depression.

Genetic makeup influences your sensitivity to stressful life events. When genetics, biology, and stressful life situations come together, depression can result.

Stress has its own physiological consequences. It triggers a chain of chemical reactions and responses in the body. If the stress is short-lived, the body usually returns to normal. But when stress is chronic or the system gets stuck in overdrive, changes in the body and brain can be long-lasting.

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