Depression - What is it? How do we help folks with it?
Updated: Jan 31
Negative thoughts have a detrimental effect on the body and brain. A part of the brain called the Thalamus is responsible for sending signals to the rest of the body when a stress response is required to save us from danger. But the Thalamus does not recognise the difference between negative thoughts and the signs of danger so it sends the same types of signals to release the chemicals needed into the blood stream causing reactions in the body and brain. One of the chemicals released is Cortisol. Cortisol is good for short spurts, for example the deer running from the tiger, flight or fight. When cortisol is continuously released by consistent negative thoughts then it reduces the efficiency of the immune system, it inhibits protein production in the cells and destroys brains cells in our memory bank, the Hippocampus. This eventually diminishes our ability to form new memories and learn new information. It also inhibits the repair of the body’s cells and makes us more prone to illness and disease.
When the body is constantly receiving a certain chemical, whether from within the body or introduced to the body from the outside, the body becomes used to this state of being, addicted. Now whether it is cortisol, alcohol, medication or illicit drugs, it causes the body to want more of the same, homeostasis.
Let us take Cortisol as an example. A person who has been negative for extended periods of time decides to change their thinking to positivity but the body suddenly becomes upset about this change. As cortisol is no longer being released the body feels uncomfortable, because it wants more of the same. The body sends signals to the brain asking for more negativity, more cortisol. The brain then looks into its memory bank, where all those negative memories are stored, and then brings them to the surface. The logical brain, our prefrontal Cortex starts mulling over these negative thoughts, the Thalamus sends the signals off to the body, releasing Cortisol back into the blood stream and now the body feels normal again.
When we continue to think in a certain way, be it positive or negative we build more and more synaptic connections within the brain. The neural pathways become stronger. If you are always negative then these pathways become thicker and richer, whilst positive pathways are pruned away because they are not being used. This means that it becomes easier to think negatively and harder to think positively, so in reality you nurture a habit of negative thinking.
People who have become depressed have trained their minds and bodies into this negative cycle. They may have experienced something negative in their life and, or are still experiencing it, and continue to only see what is wrong and have become pessimistic in nature. The body has become accustomed to this state of being, sending signals to the brain, which in turn digs up more negativity, releasing more cortisol, building more negative pathways in the brain and the person spirals deeper and deeper into despair. While all this is going on, the feel-good chemicals Serotonin, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine don’t even get a look in. This is why, many times, without help, folks cannot reverse their frame of mind on their own, and require help to do so.
Now that we have an understanding of the mechanisms of depression from a neurological and biochemical standpoint, how can we identify the signs of depression in ourselves or others?
There are nine core symptoms that people suffering Depression may display:
1. Loss of interest or pleasure in things once enjoyed.
2. Feelings of sadness or being continually down.
3. Change in appetite. Eating less or even more than normal.
4. Trouble sleeping or getting too much sleep.
5. Lack of energy. Feeling worn out all the time.
6. Feeling restless. Unable to relax and sit still.
7. Lack of concentration and difficulty making decisions.
8. Feeling worthless or having no purpose.
9. Thoughts of or attempting suicide.
If you know of someone demonstrating any of these symptoms then I suggest you get them to a GP as soon as possible. A Mental Health Assessment is required. If there are thoughts of suicide then do not leave the person alone and get them to medical care immediately. Medication might be prescribed depending on the severity of the depression. This can kick start the recovery, supplementing those feel good chemicals Serotonin, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine.
Other techniques used by a health care workers, psychologist, psychiatrist and counsellors maybe:
1. Journaling – The client is to write down all positive and negative thoughts for a week. Tally them up at the end of the week. Then try to have a couple more positive thoughts the week thereafter.
2. Thought Stopping – The client saying to themselves or out loud STOP when a negative thought comes into the mind. Then replacing it with a positive thought.
3. Schedule an enjoyable activity – The client to write it down, and then write “I will enjoy this activity because………….”
4. Move the Body – The client to do some exercise and stretching. This will build a fitter stronger body but also release those feel good chemicals into the blood stream.
5. Meditate – The client should practice mindfulness meditation to calm and focus the mind.
Find a good meditation teacher and practice this daily.
6. Cold Exposure Therapy – Norepinephrine and Dopamine are released into the blood stream by reducing the body’s core temperature by 1c. This gives the client a psychological lift and strengthens the immune system. (Should be undertaken only through a trained instructor)
Depression can sneak up on any of us. Many times, the depressed person just can’t change their thinking so there is no point telling them to do just that. Instead lend an empathetic ear. Tell them that you care about them and ask if everything is alright.
Nobody makes it through life alone. We all need help.