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Deeper Than Down In The DumpsI 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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  1. I agree with you tremendously about this – the utilization of neuro-chemicals and psycho-tropic drugs as a 'cure' has reached a level of madness. They have a place, but probably far far less than is currently advocated. Furthermore they can and do cause great harm in themselves, many of these drugs have terrible side effects and cause agitation, suicidality and physiological problems that add to a persons burden.
    In brain injury there are multiple issues occuring in depressions – the emotional background, the organic injury and the response to the injury. It may be that depression is a necessary part of the process; providing it is not life threatening or never ending. But no one knows.
    Alternaitve therapies do work well – however I would say that a good neuropsychologist, especially one who focuses on a cognitive behavioral therapy approach can also make a difference and may be very helpful. This approach also looks to 'rewire' you in that it breaks out of the loops of thinking patterns that can cause depression or create problems for the individual and works to create new patterns. Our brain loves patterns and will adapt to that since patterns are efficient and we are geared to being efficient systems. A good plus of CBT therapies are that they may be covered under insurance and other CAM methods may not be. This can be a BIG difference – right now many CAM approaches are 'indulgences' from a financial perspective. THe down side is finding the right person to provide this help correctly.

  2. Marty Coleman Reply

    I think that is a tremendous new path of investigation, not the disorder of the negative, but a disorder of the positive. I hope great things come from that path!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Exactly. A different perspective may provide new insight. To get different results, you have to do something different, right!?

  3. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on neurofeedback versus Brain Optimization, if you had to pick one or the other. Thanks!

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Kelty, I think they both have their merits. For me, I found Brain Wave Opimization to be much faster and more dramatic, BUT that was after I had already done a year and a half of traditional neurofeedback. So, who’s to say that BWO didn’t build on what had already been done and that it wouldn’t have taken much, much longer if I had started with it. I would say to try both and see what works FOR YOU. Every brain is different and going to respond differently.

  4. In my experience people often find it the hardest to understand that depression is seated in the *brain* (neurochemical) and not the *mind* (emotional). Also, outsiders seem to think that if your life is great you have no reason to be depressed. This is so hurtful and frustrating, despite people’s best intentions – it simply makes one feel more isolated.

    I’ve had a roller coaster journey with medication and feel like I’ve tried just about every one there is. What really got me is that the stuff that is supposed to help you get better usually makes you ill in other ways with their wide range of hideous side-effects, and I took myself off all medication a good while ago as well. I now maintain my (mental) health with mindfulness, yoga and meditation. However, sometimes the pit is just so dark and deep that no amount of meditation will make the slightest difference, and a bit of a chemical push is needed. But it’s exactly like you say – there is no quick fix or magic pill in either medication nor therapy, and a lot of hard work is required on the part of the patient. I’m hoping that I’ll continue to be able to maintain my health and not slip into that pit again.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Hanelle, the components of depression are not fully undertood and are highly individual. I would encourage you not to assume that depression is entirely a neurochemical imbalance or emotional. It is most likely a combination of both which varies with every person. While chemicals can help some, I can tell you that for me, it was changing my thought patterns and lifestyle that finally did it.

      I applaud that you have found meditation, mindfullness, and yoga (me too!) for these are permanent tools upon which to build a mentally healthy life. I do not find that I fall into the pit anymore or even struggle with it. But, you are right, it is hard work no matter waht! But, good work too! 🙂

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