I want to talk candidly about something near and dear to my own heart and brain: depression. First, let’s be clear about what depression is not. It’s not just some yuppie fad for people with way too much time to think and not enough interesting stuff in their lives to keep their minds entertained. It’s not just people who need to get over it already and become happy campers. It’s not just people who don’t go to church enough.
Depression is real, and it can kill. It almost killed me. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2011, “39,518 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. In that year, someone in the country died by suicide every 13.3 minutes.”
Depression is a complex illness with a basis in brain neurochemicals and thought patterns with many other contributing factors such as life events, environment, biochemicals, and heredity. One standard medical theory is that it’s a disease caused by imbalanced levels of essential neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
Studies have shown that depressed people’s brains are physically different from healthy brains, for example, the hippocampus, a part of the brain vital to memories, is smaller in people with a history of depression. However, it’s not exactly known how the differences in a depressed brain produce a mood disorder or which is the cause and which is the effect.
In my opinion, doctors are far too careless in writing prescriptions for antidepressants, especially when the physical ramifications of the drugs aren’t clearly understood. Antidepressants are the number one prescribed medication in the US; their use has doubled in the last 10 years, and are serious medications which alter the brain’s chemistry.
I was two weeks into a new antidepressant when I tried to commit suicide. Of course, they do have strong warnings, which I ignored, not to drink alcohol while taking, which most certainly would include a whole bottle of wine. The risk of suicide is included in the list of possible side effects usually printed right on the bottle
Only about 50% of depressed people respond positively to antidepressants and the noticeable benefits wear off fairly quickly. Something else has to be going on here. But what? New research is showing that depression may not be so much a disorder of the negative emotions, but rather a disorder of positive emotions. The idea is that depressed people can’t hold onto the positive emotions and indicates the use of medication to sustain the reward system in the brain.
While medications alone can and do help some people, others find success in altering their behavior through mindfulness, affirmations, positive thinking, prayer, meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, physical exercise, adding supplements or changing their diet.
Through neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to physically change form and function based on incoming stimuli, behavioral modifications can result in real, lasting changes in the brain whereas medications do not. Some people achieve beneficial results with a combination of medication, behavioral changes and/or other methods, and some don’t find relief at all. It’s still a mystery.
Personally, I weaned myself off of antidepressants six months after my trying to end my life and did not go to a traditional mental health counselor except right after the suicide attempt. I’d taken pills for years and talked until I was blue in the face with little success obviously. When I quit looking for a quick and easy fix in a pill or in a therapist and began to confront and work through my issues and change my behaviors and thinking, the depression lifted and life got infinitely better as I grew stronger, more resilient, and positive.
I would say that my depression was physically based while environmentally and socially reinforced by learned, unhealthy thought patterns. In my case, the brain injury resulting from the suicide attempt actually made making big changes easier. Because the habitual pathways in my brain and in turn, established, unhealthy behavioral patterns and emotional reactions were wiped out, I got to start with a clean slate so to speak. Learning new ways of responding made new connections in my brain.
To recover from the brain injury, I did neurofeedback therapy and Brainwave Optimization, which train the brain to perform at optimum levels and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. I believe these therapies allowed my brain to function properly maybe for the first time ever and supported it in making healthier default pathways as I learned better emotional responses and behaviors. Simultaneously through mindfulness practices and meditation, I have drastically changed my thinking and approach to life which also reinforced different connections in my brain.
I’m not advocating that anyone get up off of the therapists’ couch and throw away their antidepressants. This is what finally worked for me. Thank goodness. Every individual has to find what works for them.
I am saying that depression is a real problem with a basis in the brain, whether neurochemical or thought patterns or both. However unlike a cancer victim or someone who has a heart attack, depressed people are oftentimes negatively judged and blamed in society and there’s a stigma that goes with the condition. Believe me, I think most depressed people would be more than happy to just get over it if they could.
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