This article was originally published at Awarenow, and is reproduced with permission.
You might be feeling “down in the dumps” lately, even like you have “lost your old self”. You may have noticed that you are sleeping quite a bit less than you used to, or are sleeping a fair bit more. Your eating patterns might have changed. You might be finding it harder to concentrate at work, or that you are more irritable with loved ones. You might even have noticed that you have lost your sense of hope for the future, or are feeling helpless about your present circumstances.
When you are experiencing a group of symptoms like this, you might be depressed. In addition to consulting with your trusted primary care physician, you can benefit from educating yourself about behavioral, psychological, and interpersonal changes you can make in order to feel better again.
Change is possible. You can feel well. I can help.
Where Does Depression Come From and What Can You Do About It?
Professionals and researchers have developed multiple maps of the territory of depression, including physiological, psychological, interpersonal, existential and socioeconomic areas. Each of these maps has some important information that should be included in a comprehensive approach to addressing your concern. For this post, I am drawing on the work of Elliott Ingersoll, PhD, who wrote an article entitled “An Integral Understanding of the Etiology of Depression”
(from Integral Theory in Action: Applied, Theoretical, and Constructive Perpsectives on the AQAL Model; 2010: Suny Press; Esbjorn-Hargens, S. ed.)
Is depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain?
You may have heard that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance in the brain”. While this has become a popular idea, in part due to the marketing efforts of pharmaceutical companies, it lacks a strong scientific basis. There is in fact no single biological correlate that has been found for the experience of depression.
Instead, what we do know is that we can alleviate some symptoms of depression through chemical interventions, some of the time, with some people. Therefore, I do recommend you consult with your trusted physician or naturopath with respect to medicines, including plant medicines, that might be helpful to you.
How Medicines Work
The most promising biological theory for how antidepressant medications might help you is the following: these Selective Serotonin or Norephinephrine Response Inhibitors increase the levels in the brain of something called “cyclic AMP”. If your eyes have not already glazed over from this obscure language, what might be helpful to know is that this “cyclic AMP” is responsible for the production of a very important protein in your brain called “Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor”, or “BDNF”. BDNF is responsible for the survival of existing neurons, and the growth of new ones!
By taking medicines appropriately, then, you may be assisting in the growth of new neurons in the brain. And that is good news.
Train Your Body, Change Your Brain
Dr. Ingersoll makes the important point that if you believe that your depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in your brain, you may respond by feeling helpless or hopeless because it may seem like a state of affairs that you have no control over. He goes onto to note that these feelings themselves are psychological correlates of depression.
So not only is this theory not proven, it’s not particularly helpful or useful to you in addressing your suffering, beyond motivating you to see your doctor about medication.
What do you have control over, then, that can help you heal from depression? You have control over the limbs of your body and thus you can choose to exercise. We have great evidence that regular exercise helps alleviate depression, with the likely cause of this change being an increase in the vary same substance in the brain that we discussed as being involved in how antidepressant medications work: BDNF.
Take Home Message: What can you do about the physical causes of depression?
Consult with your physician or naturopath. If you can find a physician who is willing to acknowledge multiple causes of depression, that is better. Your physician may prescribe you medications that can increase the amount of certain brain chemicals that may help you to feel less depressed; if she or he does, then it is important that you follow through on the physician’s recommendation.
Alternatively, plant medicines are quickly emerging as viable options for the body-brain component of your challenge with depression.
Set your intention to increase the amount of physical exercise you are doing. Plan for a small change, like walking rather than driving to do an errand. And most important, schedule the new activity in your calendar. Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, makes the case that setting aside a particular time for practicing a new habit greatly increases the chance that an intended change in behavior will become a real one.
When exercising, and following your doctor’s — or shaman’s — recommendations regarding medicine, remind yourself that these activities encourage the growth of new cells in the brain. You could affirm, “By doing this, I am helping grow new cells in my brain”.