What Depression Does To The Brain

Everyone “feels blue” now and then. You may be going through a rough patch in your personal life. A difficult project or task may make your job particularly stressful.  

Your days begin to feel tense and frustrating. Your anxiety peaks. Typically, when the catalyst for your depressive episode is removed, the “blue feelings” begin to fade.  

But what happens when “feeling blue” is a constant in your life? What if every day you are consumed with dark thoughts? And they are suffocatingly heavy? You may be experiencing Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). 

Individuals who experience major depression like MDD suffer from a type of mood disorder that severely impacts their emotional state. They are overwhelmed with constant feelings of sadness and disinterest in daily life. Severe depression like this won't just “go away.” Emotional and behavioral health become dysregulated and dysfunctional. What is needed is a combination of therapies and medication to effectively address this behavioral health concern. 

Symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder 

The symptoms of MDD can be felt daily. The intensity of the symptoms may fluctuate, but they happen with a regular occurrence. They can also be severe enough to disrupt your daily routines and life. The most common symptoms of MDD are: 

  • Feelings of hopelessness or emptiness 
  • Intense irritability 
  • Angry outbursts 
  • Difficulty falling asleep/sleeping too much  
  • Appetite disturbances 
  • Feelings of worthlessness 
  • Anxiety 
  • Loss of interest 
  • Suicidal ideation/thoughts 
  • Suicide attempts  

These symptoms can be very serious and very scary. Depression is a mental illness that can be incredibly debilitating with grave side effects on your personal life. While the majority of these symptoms are emotional manifestations of MDD, depression affects you physically as well. 

Where Does Depression Come From?  

Major depression is a serious mental health concern and should not be ignored. With significantly low moods you may feel like you have no energy to participate in activities and have no interest in doing so. You may feel physically exhausted all the time without knowing why. But what causes depression?  

Depression can be a complex and complicated condition that affects the brain and your emotional state. A chemical imbalance, life experiences, and genetics all can play a role in your mental health deteriorating.  

If the parts of the brain that control mood and emotion do not function properly there will be a chemical imbalance that can cause the depression. There are three main neurotransmitters responsible for depression symptoms that occur with MDD; dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.  

These neurotransmitters communicate signals to the brain’s nerve cells, and whether to increase or decrease the levels. If these levels become disrupted depression treatments with medication will be needed.  

Antidepressants are one example of medications used to alter the brain’s chemistry. The most common antidepressant prescribed are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s). They block serotonin from being reabsorbed into the brain’s neurons. When they remain available in the body, the individual is able to have chemically balanced neurotransmitters, preventing a depressive episode.  

For others, painful memories and experiences may be the source of their depression. These causes operate as catalysts for severe episodes of depression that impact your life. Let’s say you experience the death of a loved one. You may find it difficult to process the emotions and move forward. You may even become catatonic. And unfortunately for some, they may have a genetic disposition to major depressive disorder. Just like other hereditary health conditions that can negatively impact your life, MDD deserves to be monitored and treated.  

Whatever the “root cause” of your debilitating depression, the physical changes it causes should be noted. It is important to understand all the ways major depression changes and alters your brain in order to better treat it.  

How Depression Alters The Brain 

Experiencing severe depression is extremely difficult. Repeated episodes of depression can cause you to struggle. But it can also cause damage to your brain in the long term. Early treatment is critical so you can avoid long lasting harm.  

Your brain becomes physically altered after the prolonged burden of major depression. It can wreak havoc on its corporeal structure. Regions of your brain can become inactive and ‘go dark,’ unable to produce “feel good” chemicals to combat the “sad” chemicals.  Other areas like the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus become effected, losing volume and exacerbate your serious symptoms. And brain inflammation becomes apparent as well.  


This part of your brain releases stress hormones like cortisol. Under normal conditions, cortisol being released is not problematic. However major depression will flood the brain and body with cortisol, damaging the neurons and preventing the growth of new ones. Too much cortisol can also contribute to shrinking the size of the hippocampus destroying your abilities for memory retention.  

Brain Inflammation: 

Experts have been able to establish a connection between brain inflammation and major depression. Individuals who suffer from major depression have increased protein levels that contribute to inflammation. This can lead to damaged brain cells, brain cells dying, and the brain being aged prematurely.  

An easily overlooked affect that depression has on the brain is what it does to the central nervous system. The central nervous system (CNS) is located in the nerves of the brain and the spinal cord. Your CNS is responsible with the way your body absorbs information through your senses (ex. A frightening sight will encourage your CNS to release heightened fear signals through the body so you remain on alert). 

Increased anxiety from your depression will flood your brain cells with fear signals. Your central nervous system becomes overactive, battering your body into remaining in a state of heightened fear. Your brain becomes accustomed to this constant chemical release as “the new normal” permanently changing the chemical balances of your brain.   

Preventing Damage To Your Brain 

While it has been demonstrated how severe depression can cause damage to the physical structure of the brain, this damage does not have to be permanent. There are steps you can take to prevent damage and begin reversing any existing changes that may have occurred. Here are a few things you can begin doing: 

Reducing Stress: 

Learning to develop healthy coping skills can help you significantly reduce stressors in your life. You will be able to manage and navigate difficult situations and help prevent the onset of a depressive episode.  


There are various medications you can take that can support your brain’s chemical imbalance. Prescribed by a psychiatrist, you doctor will develop a specific medication regimen that will better support you from falling into depressive episodes.  



Sessions with a skilled and certified mental health therapist can provide great insight to your depression and its causes. Being able to define your stressors can assist you with learning to avoid them. You will also learn mindfulness techniques and healthy coping skills to better manage your depression. With improved cognitive behavioral skills, you can begin your recovery from major depression.  


Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation:

TMS is a minimally invasive treatment that delivers stimulation to targeted regions of the brain. The treatment is focused to these regions because of their relationship to mood and depression. TMS can improve your depression by activating the stagnant areas of the brain, encouraging the growth of new brain cells that will encourage normal brain functions and balanced moods.  

As scientists learn more about the brain, its structure, and how it functions, we can establish that it is possible to reverse the harm Major Depressive Disorder causes on the body. MDD can be an isolating and painful experience and too many people suffer every day. Better understanding the brain and the physical impact major depression has, you can begin the depression treatments that best fit your needs and concerns. Depression should not be ignored; it should be treated (just as any other condition is). There can be hope for you again on your path of recovery from debilitating depression. 

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Can TMS Treat High Functioning Depression?

Depression is an illness that affects millions around the world. Depression also affects those millions of people very differently. Manifested in varied ways, depression can mean different things for many. But what does the face of depression look like?  

Depression is a mood disorder that negatively affects your thinking and your emotional health. You may lose interest in once loved activities or feel unable to participate in your daily life. Depression symptoms may be mild and only experienced for a short amount of time. For others, symptoms may be severe and your depression experienced for a greater length of time.  

There are different types of depression that can be experienced. But what types of depression occur? What is major depression? What does high functioning depression mean? And why is this difference important?  

Long lasting depression, or Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) may render individuals completely paralyzed by their symptoms. If not long lasting, MDD can produce incredibly severe symptoms, even if it just for a few months. 

Patients become completely limited, if not incapacitated by their symptoms. High functioning depression (also referenced as dysthymia) is not a diagnosis or disorder, but has been popularized recently to better characterize how some people experience depression. What is dysthymia? The term dysthymia is used to describe individuals who suffer from high functioning depression for at least two years. If you are someone experiencing high functioning depression you are experiencing Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD). 

PDD, or high functioning depression, is a chronic form of depression where the individual suffering seems to be able to function at a normal level, all the while suffering inside.  

Those suffering from high functioning depression may rely on their own coping mechanisms to push through their dark feelings each day, suffering in silence, and without any mental health help. 

Typically, many people who experience depression (mild or severe) may find themselves unmotivated to participate in daily life. There is difficulty in thinking and concentrating, with an increase in purposeless activity. In more severe cases, an individual suffering from depression may find themselves having suicidal thoughts or a fixation on death. If you, or someone you know who is struggling with suicidal ideation, it is important to reach out to a mental health professional, dial 911, and/or go to your nearest hospital.  

If you suffer from depression for longer than a few weeks, you may be suffering from major depression. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is used by mental health professionals to determine and diagnose your depression symptoms. They may consult this manual to determine if your symptoms fit the specific classifications for depression.  

If you experience depression symptoms for longer than two weeks, it is very important to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist for an evaluation.  

Symptoms of depression may include: 

  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Feeling “down” for the majority of your days 
  • Feelings of worthlessness 
  • Feelings of hopelessness 
  • No interest in previously enjoyed activities 
  • Weight loss/weight gain 
  • Suicidal thoughts 

The severity and length of time these symptoms are experienced will determine the type of depression you are experiencing. Major depressive disorder and persistent depressive disorder may be similar but they are not the same. Is your depression getting worse? If you have been experiencing symptoms of depression for longer than two years, but have been managing to cope, you may be suffering from PDD. If your symptoms are much more severe, and you have had an inability to cope (even if it has only been a few months) you may be suffering from MDD. 

Unfortunately for those suffering from major depressive disorder, there is no “high functioning” version. MDD is debilitating and can really impair a person’s quality of life. PDD can also impair quality of life, but to a lesser degree. Regardless of the type of depression someone suffers, it is critical for these individuals to reach out for a psychiatric diagnosis and treatment.  

Ignoring depression symptoms can be damaging and dangerous. An accurate diagnosis and immediate treatment are vital. If your symptoms are not being treated or managed, it can impact your stress and relationships.  

Treatment For Depression 

If you feel like you are suffering from depression, you should reach out to a mental health professional. After a mental health evaluation, they will be able to diagnose your symptoms and create a treatment plan to help alleviate your depression.  

The treatment of your symptoms and mental health conditions will be contingent on the severity of your depression. If your therapist or psychiatrist believes you are suffering from PDD they may offer different options to help reduce and mitigate your depression symptoms.  

Some treatment options for PDD may include talk therapy, medication, and/or transcranial magnetic stimulation. 

Talk Therapy 

A mental health professional, usually a trained and certified therapist, will engage in talk therapy with you to identify the stressors or “triggers” you may experience in your life. You and your therapist may discuss certain difficult moments in your life, how your varied experiences may have affected you, and provide you with healthy coping skills when dealing with your stressors.  

Your therapist can make recommendations for positive alternatives to help encourage a change in your thinking. These strategies can build upon themselves, provide the individual suffering from depression with insight on their behavior, and make them self-aware on how to cope with every day challenges.  


Others suffering from depression may find their symptoms alleviated with medications. A psychiatrist will evaluate your symptoms and work with you to develop an appropriate regimen of medications they will prescribe. Common medications used to treat depression are antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and antipsychotics.  

The most common antidepressants used to treat depression are SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). What do antidepressants do? They block serotonin from being reabsorbed into the brain’s neurons, improving your brain’s chemical messaging, enhancing mood boosting sensations.  

Benzodiazepines are used to treat depression because of their relaxing properties. Colloquially referred to as “benzos,” their chemical composition allows relief from the anxiety symptoms caused by the depression.  

Antipsychotics for depression are also a commonly prescribed medication for treatment. They can be combined with antidepressants because of their mood enhancing affect.  

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation 

A progressive treatment for PDD patients, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has been a great alternative to traditional methods when dealing with depression. A noninvasive form of brain stimulation, TMS encourages activation of the neurons directly responsible for mood. Magnetic pulses target specific regions of the brain to encourage the cells to activate and release mood enhancing signals. This can gradually alleviate the depression symptoms, providing you with relief.  

Is It Depression If You Feel Like You Can Manage? 

As stated earlier, depression can and does look different for many people. The intensity of your symptoms may vary. Not everyone becomes catatonic. But that does not mean you should minimize the symptoms you are experiencing. Your depressive symptoms and experiences with depression are valid and should be treated as such.  

Recognizing that even if you have been “coping” without any professional mental health intervention does not mean you should continue to do so. Many patients who suffer from high functioning depression should still reach out to professionals who can help monitor and manage their symptoms. Their depression does not become “less than” just because the severity may not be as intense.  

You cannot “will” yourself to recover from mental health illnesses. They require more care than that. You require (and deserve) more care than that.  

If you are struggling with persistent depressive disorder and are confused about where to start looking for help, please call Gemini Health (301) 363 - 1063. We are a team of mental health professionals who can help treat and manage your depression symptoms.  

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