What is Depression?
Mental Health Series
Personally, I’ve struggled with depression on and off throughout my life. I did not present in the “typical” manner that most people do, but I did have some obvious symptoms that could not be overlooked. I was diagnosed with PMDD in my early twenties, which you can read about here. These symptoms only appeared at certain times of the month during my cycle. I do have PMDD, but I also realized that I had become depressed. I never felt “sad,” as I had previously associated depression with. So, what was going on, and what exactly is depression?
Depression is a common and serious mental health condition characterized by feelings of sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness, and a general lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities. It can also cause physical symptoms such as appetite changes, difficulty sleeping, brain fog, and fatigue. Other symptoms of depression that are frequently overlooked include angry outbursts, irritability or frustration (even over minor problems), anxiety, slowed thinking, feelings of guilt, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and physical pain. Depression affects people of all ages and can impair daily functioning.
Children and teenagers typically have similar symptoms but may present differently. Please see this article for more information.
There is no easy way to “spot” if someone is depressed. In another post How Does Depression Look, I outlined the fact that some people can even appear “happy” but still be depressed.
If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional as soon as possible. They can help you identify the root cause of your depression and develop a treatment plan that may include dietary changes, lifestyle changes, therapy, medication, or a combination of all the modalities.
It is imperative that you start to take care of yourself by eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep. Increasing foods that boost serotonin and dopamine like avocado, lean beef, salmon, nuts, seeds, berries, greens, cruciferous vegetables, papaya, apples, bananas and chocolate can help. The worst foods that can trigger inflammation and thus increase depression includes, sugary foods and drinks, processed foods, vegetable oils, trans fats, alcohol, artificial sweeteners and foods containing gluten (just to name a few). People with mental health issues overall seem to lack numerous minerals and vitamins that can be easily consumed with adjusting one’s diet. If your gut in inflamed because of what you eat, that means the rest of your body is most likely inflamed and thus your brain cannot compensate for all that inflammation.
This podcast has some excellent information and practical advice -
Huberman Lab Podcast
The act of being more physical helps flood your body with endorphins. You don’t have to work out every day or go to the gym at all. Things like walking, swimming, yoga and dancing can get you moving. Swimming can improve both men’s and women’s moods. Swimming for instance, can reduce anxiety in people with fibromyalgia, and exercise therapy in warm water can reduce depression and improve mood overall. Water-based exercise can improve pregnant women’s health and have a positive impact on their mental health. Swimming has also been shown to be beneficial for parents of children with developmental disabilities. One study found that exercise can be as effective as medication in reducing symptoms of depression.
Creating good sleep habits should be a no-brainer, but it’s not. Sleeping for at least 6–8 hours at a time is ideal. Some people thrive on less, while others need more. One of the hallmarks of depression, is that people tend to sleep more. Sometimes this could be due to having a lack of energy, while others sleep to not feel their feelings. Either way, cultivating a good sleep schedule and optimal sleep hygiene will help ease the symptoms of depression. The Sleep Foundation reports that “obtaining healthy sleep is important for both physical and mental health, improving productivity and overall quality of life.
Adequate sleep, particularly REM sleep, aids the brain’s processing of emotional information. The brain works during sleep to evaluate and remember thoughts and memories, and it appears that a lack of sleep is particularly detrimental to the consolidation of positive emotional content. This can affect mood and emotional reactivity and is linked to the severity of mental health disorders, including the risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
As a result, the traditional view that sleep problems were a symptom of mental health disorders is being challenged more and more. Instead, it is becoming clear that there is a bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health, with sleeping issues being both a cause and a result of mental health issues. Who knew?
Reach out to friends and family for support and try to participate in activities that you enjoy often. A good support system is essential for navigating your way out of the shadows. Remember that it is okay to ask for help and that with treatment and time, you can feel better.
Setting new goals can also help you break free from depression. Just remember to take baby steps. Try not to do everything yourself and take your time. Feeling overwhelmed can make depression worse. Start by setting small goals and let yourself feel good when you accomplish them. As you get more comfortable, you can begin to create bigger goals to work towards.
The main goal of seeking help is to have more good days and fewer bad days. With perseverance, you will eventually arrive. A lot of people with depression have extremely low motivation, which is oftentimes the first hurtle to overcome. You may have to make a conscious effort to break the cycle. If you cannot motivate yourself, it’s likely others will not be able to motivate you either. It is wise to take in the advice of others to get you started, but ultimately you need to put in the work and begin to find self-motivation. Getting better is not something that happens overnight and magically. It takes dedication to yourself, follow through and action. Keep in mind that it is OK to fail, as long as you aren’t hurting yourself or others. Each day is a fresh clean slate to try again. You cannot learn from mistakes without failure.
Simple things that might help get you motivated are getting out of bed, putting on something other than pajamas, take a hot or cold shower, get some fresh air and walk around, don’t over schedule yourself, say no or yes more often depending on what you typically do (i.e., lack of boundaries, being closed off or isolating), planning 1–3 things you want to get done each day, practice daily self-care and socialize within your comfort zone. Once you begin to get a healthier routine and increased motivation, you can start to expand. I’ll say it again…start slow, but definitely start!
You might have heard of the term “mindfulness” being used a lot more recently in relation to mental health. A study found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was effective in preventing relapse in individuals with recurrent depression. Sites like www.mindful.org provide information on mindfulness and how to integrate the techniques into your life. For more information click here. Practicing mindfulness often will help you start to develop ways to “buffer” stressful situations and cope with them in a healthy way.
The Balance App helped me to put these tips into practice within days of using it. Try it free for a whole year by clicking this link. My other favorite apps to help with sleep and mental health are detailed in this post.
The prevalence and treatment of depression, and recent data continues to shed light on the potential causes and potential solutions for this disorder.
According to some studies, genetics may play a role in the development of depression because it can run in families. Genetics usually only “predisposes” one to certain outcomes; it does not guarantee them. Environmental factors such as stress, trauma, and life events are known to play a role in the onset of depression. Childhood traumas are a major contributor to the majority of mental health conditions. If you do not treat your depression or work to improve your mental health, it may lead to addiction, worsening symptoms, other mental health problems, and death. Your untreated mental health issues have an impact on your children’s mental health, even if you or they are unaware of it. The cycle of poor mental health will continue to play out until someone steps up to break it.
Clinical treatment for depression typically includes a combination of medication and therapy. The biggest neurotransmitters that play a role in depression and anxiety are dopamine and serotonin. Antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can help to balance chemicals in the brain that regulate mood. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help individuals understand and change negative thought patterns that contribute to their depression.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical messenger that is involved in a multitude of brain functions. It is produced in the brain and other parts of the body and plays a role in mood, sleep, anxiety, and appetite.
When serotonin is released by a single nerve cell, it can bind to receptors on other cells, transmitting a signal from one cell to another. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression and anxiety because the receptors don’t have adequate amounts of serotonin to work with. As you can see in the image below, the neurons do not “light up” nearly as much in the depressed brain.
Serotonin is also involved in the regulation of sleep, and low levels of serotonin can cause insomnia. In addition, serotonin plays a role in the regulation of appetite and can affect how full and satisfied we feel after eating. It’s like one huge vicious cycle; poor diet and lack of sleep can lead to depression and depression can cause poor eating habits and sleep problems.
It’s important to note that serotonin is just one of many neurotransmitters in the brain, and it interacts with other neurotransmitters and systems in complex ways to regulate various functions in the brain.
Dysfunction in the serotonin system has been linked to several disorders, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Dopamine is also a neurotransmitter, (a chemical messenger) that is involved in a variety of brain functions, including movement, emotion, motivation, and pleasure. When dopamine is released by one nerve cell, it too binds to receptors on other cells, transmitting a signal from one cell to another. In the image below, it depicts how neurotransmitters are released from one neuron to another by a synapse. You can see in the depressed synapse, there is quite a lack of neurotransmitters present for the receptors to “grab” onto, as well as less receptors overall.
Dopamine plays an esspecially important role in the brain’s reward system, which is involved in the pleasurable feelings that motivate us to pursue certain activities. When we engage in activities that are enjoyable or rewarding, such as eating delicious food, having sex, or accomplishing a goal, dopamine is released in the brain, which contributes to the pleasurable feelings we experience.
Dysfunction in the dopamine system has been linked to several disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, addiction, and schizophrenia.
Just like serotonin, dopamine is one of many neurotransmitters in the brain, and it interacts with other neurotransmitters and systems in complex ways to regulate various brain functions.
It is important for individuals experiencing symptoms of depression to seek help from a healthcare professional. With proper treatment, it is possible to manage and improve symptoms of depression. If you or a loved one is struggling with depression, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. There are resources available to support you on your journey towards recovery.
When to get emergency help
If you think you may hurt yourself, someone else or attempt suicide, call 911 in the U.S. or your local emergency number immediately.
Also consider these options if you’re having suicidal thoughts:
- Call your doctor or mental health professional. Or 211 to speak to a live person about mental health options.
- Contact a suicide hotline.
- In the U.S., call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Or use the Lifeline Chat. Services are free and confidential.
- U.S. veterans or service members who are in crisis can call 988 and then press “1” for the Veterans Crisis Line. Or text 838255. Or chat online.
- The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in the U.S. has a Spanish language phone line at 1–888–628–9454 (toll-free).
- Numerous Apps are now available to talk with someone in the privacy of your own home. Click here for a free app list. Other Apps include: Talkspace, BetterHelp, and Sanvello.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
If you have a loved one who is in danger of suicide or has made a suicide attempt, make sure someone stays with that person. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Or, if you think you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room. DO NOT leave them alone.