July 27

What Depression Does To The Brain

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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.  

Hippocampus: 

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.  


Medication: 

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.  

 

Therapy: 

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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