How To Beat Workplace Depression

Every day you wake up, drive to work, sit in an office for eight hours, and drive home. For five days a week it is a lather, rinse, repeat cycle. This is a sample of an average job. Nowadays, more and more jobs are starting to extend themselves outside of the office. Cell phones and laptops make it simple to be connected to our jobs 24/7. You may find yourself answering emails at the dinner table or fielding phone calls from other time zones on the weekends. The piles of work continue to grow, but the deadlines become much closer together. You have no choice but to do what you have to do to get it all done. Or do you?

With growing workplace demands, depression amongst employees has started to become a real epidemic. Signs of depression include feelings of sadness, worthlessness, fatigue, anxiety, and lack of concentration. For a company to operate at its best, it is important for its employees to feel their best. If you are feeling depressed at work, or feel like your employees are suffering, take note of a few suggestions to ease the stress and get back to smiles and productivity.

Don’t Let Burnout Get the Best of You

Burnout often results from extended periods enduring the emotional stress precipitated by unaccomplished expectations or failure to fulfill unreasonable demands. The symptoms can include intensified emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, lowered self-worth, changes in eating and exercising habits, social withdrawal, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

There are specific and reproducible patterns of changing neural activity and brain connectivity associated with the stress buildup that leads to burnout. In the high-stress state subjects’ neuroimaging scans reveal less activity in the higher, reflective brain (Prefrontal cortex/PFC) and more activity in the lower, reactive brain that controls involuntary behaviors and emotional responses.

Prolonged stress correlates with structural increases in the density and speed of the neuron-to-neuron connections in the emotion-driven reactive networks of the lower brain and corresponding decreases connections in prefrontal cortex conscious and reflective control centers.

The explanation of these changes is attributed to the brain’s neuroplasticity defined by the phrase: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain literally rewires to be more efficient in conducting information through the circuits that are most frequently activated.

When stress is frequent, the more frequent activation of the neural pathways to the lower, stress-reactive brain results in their strengthening from enhanced wiring (dendrites, synapses, myelinated axons). These pathways can become so strong that they become your brain’s fast route to its lower, reactive control centers. The stressful, burned out state when the lower, reactive brain is in charge overcomes the calm, reflective, and productive higher neural processing in the (PFC) – the preferred brain locale for control of behavior and emotional self-management.

As your efforts to achieve unreasonable goals are thwarted or increasing demands recur, and the lower brain dominates more frequently, you lose touch with your reflective brain. With less management coming from your reflective PFC, it becomes harder and harder to logically see these challenges in realistic perspective or to solve problems creatively.

Disappointments take on more emotional power and without your higher brain’s perspective, they are interpreted as personal failures. Your self-doubt and stress further activate and strengthen your brain’s involuntary, reactive neural networks. The spiral down to burnout accelerates as these circuits become the automatic go-to networks. Your brain achieves less success in problem-solving and emotional control and ultimately reacts by withholding efforts to escape the burnout state.

Reset Your Brain’s Default Neural Network from Retreat to IGNITE!

The good news is you can apply what we’ve learned from neuroscience about your brain’s survival mode to take actions to retrieve voluntary control of your choices and emotional wellbeing.

You can activate the same neuroplasticity, that gave dominance to the lower brain networks in the burnout state, to construct a new, stronger positive default response. With increasing successful experiences in achieving goals, you can reset the circuits to redirect your brain to access its highest cognitive resources. You can build up newly improved circuitry switching your responses from retreat to IGNITE for mindful awareness and creative problem-solving!

Since an effort-failure pattern sets up the brain’s survival response to withhold effort, you’ll need to strengthen your brain’s recognition that effort toward your goals can result in success. Your weapon of mass reconstruction can come from your brain’s very powerful drive for its own intrinsic neurochemical reward— dopamine and the deeply satisfying and motivating pleasure it brings. When the brain releases dopamine in rewarding bursts, you experience a deep intrinsic satisfaction along with increased motivation, curiosity, perseverance, and memory. Dopamine is particularly released when your brain recognizes that you’ve achieved a challenge (from the “I get it” of figuring out a joke to the satisfaction of completing a marathon).

To get the dopamine-pleasure response from challenges achieved, you’ll need to plan for your brain to experience frequent recognition (feedback awareness) of incremental progress. The choices of what you set as a goal should be guided by their desirability and the goal’s suitability to be broken down into clear segments. You want to set goals, the progress of which, you can chart or easily recognize with each stepwise challenge and success. The pleasure burst of dopamine’s intrinsic motivation accompanying your brain’s recognition of each progressive increment achieved in the goal pathway will keep you motivated to persevere.

Goal Buy-In for Your Brain’s Neural REWIRING

Buy-in and relevance are important in choosing your rewiring goal. Since your goal is to rewire your brain’s expectations that your goal efforts do yield progress, despite increasing challenge, you need to really want the goal. This is not the time to challenge yourself with something you feel you should do, but won’t really look forward to, such as dieting, climbing stadium stairs, or flossing after every meal.

The idea of planning and achieving goals as a burnout intervention is probably not new to you. These are likely to be activities you’ve considered but didn’t do for the obvious reason. They take time. when it comes to adding another activity to your schedule, past experiences have left you with the expectation that there is not enough time.

These first goals that can provide ongoing awareness of your progress are often tangible (visible, such as planting a garden or making pottery on a wheel, or auditory such as playing an instrument, or physical such as learning tai chi), but your goal can also be spending more time on something you already do, but want to do more frequently or successfully, such as journaling, practicing yoga, or sketching.

You’ll Find Your Own Goal for Buy-In, but Here are Some Examples of Planning 

Physical goals: Notice I didn’t say exercise. That’s not as motivating as “training” for a physical goal you want to achieve, even though they often overlap. If you want to run a 10K, and you enjoy running, the goal for an achievable challenge could first be building up to the distance starting with your baseline distance you comfortably run now. Then, plot out the increments that you’ll consider progressive successes, such as adding 100M each day or a week (with increments based on what you consider both challenging and achievable). Once you reach 10K goal, speed can become the next goal again plotted out in segments of incremental progress before you start.

Hobbies: From woodworking to shooting wooden arrows, hobbies really are opportunities for brain rewiring. Again, plan your stepwise achievable challenge increments. If you select darts, start with a home dartboard—low initial investment and throw from a close, but challenging distance at first. As you get better in accuracy move back further. Record your results with the notations of the distance of each improvement you set as an achievable challenge. If you get so good that you are no longer challenged by the dartboard, try that archery!

Mindfulness and meditation are certainly positive interventions for burnout and will be topics of a subsequent blog.

Your Rewired Brain’s Default Changes from Defeat to Ignite

With your understanding of what happened in your brain to create the hopeless frustration of burnout, you’ll hopefully have more positive expectations to help you put in the effort to try (or retry) suggested interventions. Your own natural dopamine-reward system will then be at work deconstructing the resistance network built by your burnout as you reset your circuits of motivation.

The repeated experiences of dopamine-reward you’ll experience as you monitor your goal progress will literally change your brain’s circuitry. Repeated effort-reward experiences promote the neuroplasticity creating neural networks that expect positive outcomes in your new default network. This is because your brain will build stronger connections into the memory pattern. The expectation in achieving this challenge will bring pleasure. As with other less used networks, the previous lower brain stress-activated go-to response network you developed in burn-out, that caused you to react negatively to stressors, will be pruned away from disuse.

You’ll be rewired with optimism and renew positive expectations about your self-efficacy. With your higher, reflective brain back in control, as you access your perseverance, innovation, and creative problem-solving when you need them.

Just be sure to take the time to break down big challenges into opportunities to recognize incremental progress as you achieve each small step en route to your goals. With that positive recharge, your well-deserved dopamine reward will sustain your brain’s motivated perseverance on to the next step of the path to your goals.

By Judy Willis, M.D., M.E

Dr. Willis is a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher, specializing in brain research regarding learning and the brain. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa as the first woman graduate from Williams College, Willis attended UCLA School of Medicine where she was awarded her medical degree. She remained at UCLA and completed a medical residency and neurology residency, including chief residency. She practiced neurology for 15 years before returning to university to obtain her teaching credential and master’s of education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She then taught in elementary and middle school for 10 years and currently is on the adjunct faculty of the Graduate School of Education, University of California, Santa Barbara.

This article first appeared in Psychology Today magazine

Rewire Your Burned-out Brain

Burnout often results from extended periods enduring the emotional stress precipitated by unaccomplished expectations or failure to fulfill unreasonable demands. The symptoms can include intensified emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, lowered self-worth, changes in eating and exercising habits, social withdrawal, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

If You’re Burned Out, Your Brain Has Rewired to Survival Mode

There are specific and reproducible patterns of changing neural activity and brain connectivity associated with the stress buildup that leads to burnout. In the high-stress state subjects’ neuroimaging scans reveal less activity in the higher, reflective brain (Prefrontal cortex/PFC) and more activity in the lower, reactive brain that controls involuntary behaviors and emotional responses. Prolonged stress correlates with structural increases in the density and speed of the neuron-to-neuron connections in the emotion-driven reactive networks of the lower brain and corresponding decreases connections in prefrontal cortex conscious and reflective control centers.

The explanation of these changes is attributed to the brain’s neuroplasticity defined by the phrase: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain literally rewires to be more efficient in conducting information through the circuits that are most frequently activated.

When stress is frequent, the more frequent activation of the neural pathways to the lower, stress-reactive brain results in their strengthening from enhanced wiring (dendrites, synapses, myelinated axons). These pathways can become so strong that they become your brain’s fast route to its lower, reactive control centers. The stressful, burned out state when the lower, reactive brain is in charge overcomes the calm, reflective, and productive higher neural processing in the (PFC) – the preferred brain locale for control of behavior and emotional self-management.

As your efforts to achieve unreasonable goals are thwarted or increasing demands recur, and the lower brain dominates more frequently, you lose touch with your reflective brain. With less management coming from your reflective PFC, it becomes harder and harder to logically see these challenges in realistic perspective or to solve problems creatively.

Disappointments take on more emotional power and without your higher brain’s perspective, they are interpreted as personal failures. Your self-doubt and stress further activate and strengthen your brain’s involuntary, reactive neural networks. The spiral down to burnout accelerates as these circuits become the automatic go-to networks. Your brain achieves less success in problem-solving and emotional control and ultimately reacts by withholding efforts to escape the burnout state.

Reset Your Brain’s Default Neural Network from Retreat to IGNITE!

The good news is you can apply what we’ve learned from neuroscience about your brain’s survival mode to take actions to retrieve voluntary control of your choices and emotional wellbeing.

You can activate the same neuroplasticity, that gave dominance to the lower brain networks in the burnout state, to construct a new, stronger positive default response. With increasing successful experiences in achieving goals, you can reset the circuits to redirect your brain to access its highest cognitive resources. You can build up newly improved circuitry switching your responses from retreat to IGNITE for mindful awareness and creative problem-solving!

Since an effort-failure pattern sets up the brain’s survival response to withhold effort, you’ll need to strengthen your brain’s recognition that effort toward your goals can result in success. Your weapon of mass reconstruction can come from your brain’s very powerful drive for its own intrinsic neurochemical reward— dopamine and the deeply satisfying and motivating pleasure it brings. When the brain releases dopamine in rewarding bursts, you experience a deep intrinsic satisfaction along with increased motivation, curiosity, perseverance, and memory. Dopamine is particularly released when your brain recognizes that you’ve achieved a challenge (from the “I get it” of figuring out a joke to the satisfaction of completing a marathon).

To get the dopamine-pleasure response from challenges achieved, you’ll need to plan for your brain to experience frequent recognition (feedback awareness) of incremental progress. The choices of what you set as a goal should be guided by their desirability and the goal’s suitability to be broken down into clear segments. You want to set goals, the progress of which, you can chart or easily recognize with each stepwise challenge and success. The pleasure burst of dopamine’s intrinsic motivation accompanying your brain’s recognition of each progressive increment achieved in the goal pathway will keep you motivated to persevere.

Goal Buy-In for Your Brain’s Neural REWIRING

Buy-in and relevance are important in choosing your rewiring goal. Since your goal is to rewire your brain’s expectations that your goal efforts do yield progress, despite increasing challenge, you need to really want the goal. This is not the time to challenge yourself with something you feel you should do, but won’t really look forward to, such as dieting, climbing stadium stairs, or flossing after every meal.

The idea of planning and achieving goals as a burnout intervention is probably not new to you. These are likely to be activities you’ve considered but didn’t do for the obvious reason. They take time. when it comes to adding another activity to your schedule, past experiences have left you with the expectation that there is not enough time.

These first goals that can provide ongoing awareness of your progress are often tangible (visible, such as planting a garden or making pottery on a wheel, or auditory such as playing an instrument, or physical such as learning tai chi), but your goal can also be spending more time at something you already do, but want to do more frequently or successfully, such as journaling, practicing yoga, or sketching.

You’ll Find Your Own Goal for Buy-In, but Here are Some Examples of Planning 

Physical goals: Notice I didn’t say exercise. That’s not as motivating as “training” for a physical goal you want to achieve, even though they often overlap. If you want to run a 10K, and you enjoy running, the goal for an achievable challenge could first be building up to the distance starting with your baseline distance you comfortably run now. Then, plot out the increments that you’ll consider progressive successes, such as adding 100M each day or a week (with increments based on what you consider both challenging and achievable). Once you reach 10K goal, speed can become the next goal again plotted out in segments of incremental progress before you start.

Hobbies: From woodworking to shooting wooden arrows, hobbies really are opportunities for brain rewiring. Again, plan your stepwise achievable challenge increments. If you select darts, start with a home dartboard—low initial investment and throw from a close, but challenging distance at first. As you get better in accuracy move back further. Record your results with the notations of the distance of each improvement you set as an achievable challenge. If you get so good that you are no longer challenged by the dartboard, try that archery!

Mindfulness and meditation are certainly positive interventions for burnout and will be topics of a subsequent blog.

Your Rewired Brain’s Default Changes from Defeat to Ignite

With your understanding of what happened in your brain to create the hopeless frustration of burnout, you’ll hopefully have more positive expectations to help you put in the effort to try (or retry) suggested interventions. Your own natural dopamine-reward system will then be at work deconstructing the resistance network built by your burnout as you reset your circuits of motivation.

The repeated experiences of dopamine-reward you’ll experience as you monitor your goal progress will literally change your brain’s circuitry. Repeated effort-reward experiences promote the neuroplasticity creating neural networks that expect positive outcomes in your new default network. This is because your brain will build stronger connections into the memory pattern. The expectation in achieving this challenge will bring pleasure. As with other less used networks, the previous lower brain stress-activated go-to response network you developed in burn-out, that caused you to react negatively to stressors, will be pruned away from disuse.

You’ll be rewired with optimism and renew positive expectations about your self-efficacy. With your higher, reflective brain back in control, as you access your perseverance, innovation, and creative problem-solving when you need them.

Just be sure to take the time to break down big challenges into opportunities to recognize incremental progress as you achieve each small step en route to your goals. With that positive recharge, your well-deserved dopamine reward will sustain your brain’s motivated perseverance on to the next step of the path to your goals.

Dr. Judy Willis is a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher, specializing in brain research regarding learning and the brain. With a unique background as both a neurologist and classroom teacher, she writes extensively for professional educational and parenting journals and has written six books about applying the mind, brain, and education research to classroom teaching and parenting strategies. The Association of Educational Publishers honored Dr. Willis as a finalist for the Distinguished Achievement Award for her educational writing. Check out her website.

 

 

Up, Up and Away: Lifting Depression By Tweaking Your Antidepressants

In my last post, I wrote about a recent downward turn in my mood. While not severe, it still sucked: low energy and motivation,  sadder more often than I’d like, and lack of joy in things that formerly made me happy.

If felt like I had one foot in gooey, hot asphalt. I keep trying to yank it out to no avail. Finally, I called my trusty psychiatrist. His name’s Chris.

We hadn’t seen each other for six months. Over the past ten years or so since he’s been my shrink, that was about normal because not much had changed in the past decade: we’d found a combination of two pills seven years ago that was effective in managing my depression.  Sure, there had been some ups and downs over that period of time. But nothing like the psychic hurricane that blew through my brain when I first experienced major depression years ago.

He suggested I stay with my two old friends: Cymbalta and Lamictal. But, he said that we could “tweak” my treatment by adding

Depression and Loss of Energy: A Waiting Game

Reversing the downward spiral of depression takes less energy than you think.

Depression and loss of energy — it is the beginning of a waiting game that does not end well.

Sometimes depression is born from loss of achievement, loss of goals, and loss of positive feelings about oneself. When low energy plays a role, a person who is not blessed with high drive and physical energy can see a spiral into depression start quickly. But even people with more energy lose it while bearing the weight of the losses. And, without a lot of energy, people begin to wait for things to get better around them rather than take action to make a change.

The Downward Spiral

Spiraling — the word makes it seem like a gentle way to go down, but when it comes to depression, going down is hard to stop, and once at the bottom, reversing the spiral takes intention and support. I hear about this often from my younger depressed clients — those adults who started out of high school or college ready to be successful but who found the world did not fulfill the vision they had.

Jeremy (not his real name) was one such young man. He never had to work too hard to get a passable grade point and was popular enough to have a solid romantic relationship. He was ready happy with his life. But, as commonly happens, the college romance did not last, which made him feel down in the dumps. Then the company he worked for, facing hard times, cut his hours. He now did not earn enough to live on but he expected the company, not himself, to change and he took no action. He waited for work to increase his hours, but in the meantime, he felt like a failure, and the waiting sapped him. His self-esteem, already suffering from being single again, took another hit as he saw his money dwindle to nothing. He started to isolate himself from friends without funds for fun and without a date to go along. Waiting was his enemy. Without meaningful activity beyond limited work hours, that isolation increased his depressed mood.

Waiting also intensified the mental and physical fatigue, so he slept later in the morning since he did not have to get to work early. He began to think he had a lot of time every day to work on his situation, so he did not start on possible job hunting and, as the day melted away, it was too easy to let himself decide that tomorrow was a good day to start fresh. But that waiting also increased his fear that nothing could change and his mood became very depressed. That depression and his situation robbed him of the very things he needed to reverse the spiral: meaningful work (purpose, as well as money), positive interactions with others, pride in his achievements, sense of competency, and a feeling of being loved.

This spiral is one I have seen repeatedly in young adults who have not met with easy success out of high school or college. They often did not have to work at jobs during those years to obtain phones or cars or clothes or do costly activities, such as attend concerts or sporting events. One young man I worked with as he finished high school, Casen (again, a pseudonym), felt literally terrified of applying for a part time job so that he could begin developing job skills and a resume and have some spare cash. Without classroom demands, he moved into waiting mode: waiting to apply to community college, waiting for a job that might fall into his lap. (The job that a friend would provide not that Casen would go search for since the friend said he could get his boss to hire Casen). Waiting did not bring him the job or the college acceptance letter, and he felt even more scared and more depressed. And he judged himself rather mercilessly: believing he would never succeed. That negative mindset robbed him of even more energy, and the more time he spent watching shows on his laptop, the less energy he had to reverse the downward spiral to depression.

What can be done about this? It is typical that an outside force will help. If you are reading this you might be saying to yourself phrases like, “Yeah — the outside force of getting evicted or starving! That would work!” If so, you would be correctly identifying motivators! At times, though, a person in a downward spiral ends up living with family or friends who are being helpful to them in averting disaster, but the pattern of waiting on something outside themselves does not change until motivation can pick up.

Reversing the Downward Spiral

How is it possible to reverse the spiral? Raising energy is a primary initial goal — with or without motivation. To start the spiral on an upward trend, simply:

Stop telling yourself negative things: you only reinforce the belief they are true. Interfere with negativity, saying, “Stop! I choose to believe I will solve this!”

Stop isolating. Get in contact with people, any interaction with others will help you also get outside of your own negative thoughts or mood.

Stop talking about your own life for a short while. When you only ruminate on your troubles, they seem larger. Ask someone else about his or her life. Hearing about another’s life, you can look at your reactions. I love the saying that troubles shared are cut in half and joys shared are doubled.

Then start the upward spiral with attention to developing a sense of purpose. Don’t assume this is a deep spiritual quest. In fact, it can be initially as simple as scheduling your day and meeting some regular commitments. An important brain change toward a less depressed mood occurs results from intentional activity. You get a blip of glutamate, an activating neurochemical, and one of dopamine, the feel-good neurochemical, and the combination is energizing. The bigger the step you take, the more you get. And any action will supply enough energy to do a little more.

My Tips

If you are underemployed — set a daily schedule that begins with a reasonable wake-up time.

Have a pattern to the day what news show you listen to or watch when you have your coffee when you feed a pet or meet a friend for tea.

Leave the house — you might have to start with leaving your room and interacting with others in your home- but forcing yourself toward less isolation is important.

At work, be sure to talk to your colleagues and ask them how they are; It improves the chance of a positive social exchange that can increase your self-esteem a bit and moves the spiral upward a fraction.

Set small goals — like walking the dog an extra 5 minutes — and notice you achieved them. There’s a bit more glutamate and dopamine!

Do something physical. When you move your depressed body you gain energy rather than lose it, so even a few minutes of tidying up can raise enough energy to do a bit more.

The above ideas tend to work best when you are working with another person who supports you, such as a therapist, a 12-Step sponsor, or a good friend who knows your goals and will help you keep track of them.

As you stop the waiting game — that passive waiting for life to change without you doing something to change it — the spiral reverses. You will be surprised that you will slowly feel your energy rise so you will be more able to take the next steps toward success.

 

By Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg, Psy.D.

This article first appeared in Psychology Today website.

Dr. Wehrenberg is the author of 5 books published by W.W. Norton, including The 10 Best Ever Anxiety Management Techniques, The 10 Best Ever Depression Management Techniques and her most recent 10 Best Anxiety Busters, an ideal book for the general public. She earned her M.A. studying psychodrama and bioenergetics, and had years of experience as a certified drug and alcoholism counselor, before earning her Psy.D. She now specializes in treating anxiety and depression and has a private practice in Naperville, IL. She is a frequent contributor of articles to The Psychotherapy Networker magazine, has contributed a chapter to Clinical Pearls of Wisdom (Ed. M. Kerman), and has produced CD for breathing, muscle relaxation and imagery for anxiety management. Check out her website at www.margaretwehrenberg.com.

 

 

How Exercise Reduces Depression, Anxiety, Cynicism, & Anger

Exercise is good for you. If you’re procrastinating a run or putting off a walk, then we recommend that you close your computer and get outside, content in the knowledge that you have fully grasped the thesis of our article. If you are still here, then we assume that you would like to know more.

First, let’s review exercise’s benefits for the body.

Individuals who exercise a total of 7 hours per week have a premature mortality rate 40 percent less than those who exercise less than 30 minutes per week. Physical activity also appears to reduce your risk for colon and breast cancers. Furthermore, there is evolving evidence that physical activity may also reduce your risk for endometrial and lung cancers.1–3

Research also suggests that health benefits may be appreciated from even modest exercise programs. As little as 2.5 hours of exercise per week significantly reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. When it comes to exercise, half a loaf really is better than none. In fact, physical inactivity is estimated to cause one in 25 deaths worldwide each year.1–3

And yet despite all that is known about the health benefits of exercise, a little more than 50 percent of Americans do not meet the current CDC recommendations of 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity (50-70 percent maximal heart rate) or 1.25 hours of vigorous intensity (70-85 percent maximal heart rate) exercise per week.1

For reference, maximal heart rate can be calculated by taking 208 – 0.7 x age (an older, unvalidated version of this equation used 220 as the base).4 As an example, a 30-year old’s maximal heart rate is calculated to be 187 beats per minute (“bpm”). This means that in our 30-year old example, a moderate-intensity activity should achieve a heart rate of at least 94 bpm while a vigorous-intensity exercise should aim for a target of at least 131 bpm.

We will return to these parameters in a moment, but for now, let’s turn to the benefits of exercise for the brain.

Before diving in, it is necessary to review the concept of effect sizes. An effect size expresses the difference between two groups; usually between a treatment group and a control group. Effect sizes are calculated as numbers but can be represented categorically as “small,” “medium,” “large,” and “very large.”5–7

Very generally, a medium effect size should be able to be “seen” by the naked eye. For example, in Professor Jacob Cohen’s pioneering work on the subject, he cited the difference in average height between 14-year-old and 18-year-old females to be an example of a medium effect. As an example of a large effect, Professor Cohen cited the difference in IQ between a “typical” college freshman and a “typical” Ph.D. holder.5 For the purposes of our discussion, the larger the effect size, the more likely it is that the treatment (e.g. exercise) is better at treating depression than the control condition (e.g. no exercise).

With our introduction to effect sizes out of the way, let’s study the effects of exercise on the brain.

Studies have demonstrated a strong antidepressant effect for exercise. For example, one meta-analysis that examined well-controlled studies of exercise as an intervention for clinical depression found a very large effect size when compared to nonactive control groups. Notably, previous work had demonstrated a large effect size for study populations of undifferentiated clinical and non-clinical subjects with depressed mood.8

We wish to pause at this point to put these antidepressant effect sizes for exercise in perspective. Let’s turn briefly to effect sizes associated with various psychiatric and general medical pharmaceuticals and treatments. We will use the most optimistic estimates of efficacy for the various classes of interventions so as to level the playing field as much as possible. We fully acknowledge that we will not be comparing apples to apples. The following discussion is not meant to be a definitive statement regarding the efficacy of various treatments. Instead, we hope that the comparisons will help place the magnitude of exercise’s effect size in context.

To begin, let’s compare exercise’s large or very large effect size with antidepressant medication’s small effect size in acute depressive episodes.9 Psychotherapeutic interventions have similar effect sizes to psychopharmacologic medication in the treatment of depressive episodes. However, the combination of psychotherapy and psychopharmacologic medication yields a medium effect size; a value notable for its superiority to either intervention offered in isolation.10 Electroconvulsive therapy for an acute depressive episode has a large effect size.11

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There are numerous potential confounding variables in this very brief comparative overview. Despite every effort to control for the various confounds, it is likely that depressed cohorts who were able to exercise were qualitatively different in some ways from some of the populations included in electroconvulsive trials for example. Researchers have employed various techniques to try to eliminate these confounds, and there are reasons to treat much of the data as valid, but caution is certainly warranted.

Antipsychotics for acute psychosis, antihypertensives for high blood pressure, and corticosteroids for the prevention of asthma exacerbations all have similar medium effect size. Whereas, antibiotics for ear infections and metformin for diabetic mortality have small effect sizes. To find a general medicine medication with an effect size on par with exercise we have to turn to proton pump inhibitors and their large effect size in the treatment of esophagitis.9 In fact, the mean effect size for all general medical medications corresponds to a small effect.10

Research has revealed benefits for exercise in other domains of mental health as well. Meta-analytic reviews have found a small effect size for exercise on state or trait anxiety.8 However, upon closer examination research reveals that exercise has a stronger effect on state anxiety than on trait anxiety.12

Evidence also suggests a broader application of exercise beyond strictly pathological states.13–15 One large non-clinical population-based study demonstrated that individuals who exercised more than two times per week experienced reductions not only in depressive symptomatology, but also in cynical distrust, anger, and stress when compared to individuals who exercised less often.15

There is also significant evidence for a dose-response relationship between exercise and mental health. Exercise regimens with higher intensities, greater frequencies, and longer durations tend to lead to greater response rates in depressed populations. Interestingly, depression remission rates seem to peak at moderate levels of intensity, frequency, and duration suggesting that sustainability of a regimen is an important ingredient to consider when developing a program.8

The setting that one exercises in also appears to play a role. Research has demonstrated that exposure to nature and so-called “green space” exerts powerful effects on mood and self-esteem. Exercising outdoors in a natural setting with trees and plants appears to be superior to exercising in an environment devoid of such “green” qualities. The positive effects rapidly develop with even just five minutes of outdoor time offering a very achievable goal even for busy individuals.3

Interestingly, natural settings with bodies of water present (e.g. streams, rivers, lakes, etc.) appear to offer enhanced benefits over and above those seen in other natural settings.3 Natural settings seem to exert their positive effects on health through a variety of mechanisms; however, it should be noted that the effects are not fully explained by the association of green space and exercise.16 In fact, greater exposure to nature, in general, has been associated with as much as a 12 percent reduction in all-cause non-accidental mortality!17

How does exercise exert these far-ranging effects?

There are many gaps in our understanding of the mechanisms by which exercise exerts its anxiolytic and antidepressant effects. There is some evidence that exercise may increase turnover of serotonin, leading to an adaptive downregulation of the serotonergic 5-HT2C receptor. Activation of the 5-HT2C receptor seems to inhibit dopamine and norepinephrine release. Thus, a downregulation at the 5-HT2C receptor leads to an increase in availability of dopamine and norepinephrine. This effect is thought to be particularly important in the prefrontal cortex and is hypothesized to contribute to the anxiolytic and antidepressant effects associated with exercise.8

In addition to increasing serotonin turnover exercise seems to trigger a release of beta-endorphins. Endorphins are part of the brain’s endogenous opioid system and also tend to produce anxiolytic and antidepressant effects when released.8

From a more macroscopic scale exercise, like antidepressant medication, helps restore sleep patterns frequently disrupted in the setting of depression. Furthermore, evidence suggests that activity in the prefrontal cortex is reduced during exercise and that this modification of cognitive processing may correlate with the subjective anxiolytic and antidepressant effect of exercise.8

Finally, exercise engages an individual in an activation and approach set of behaviors that are diametrically opposed to passive and avoidant cognitive strategies classically found in depression and many other psychopathological states. In this way exercise seems to operate on a similar theoretical framework as the psychotherapeutic technique known as behavioral activation. Behavioral activation targets behavior first rather than cognition as many other forms of psychotherapy do.18 It must be noted that although exercise may be a component of a behavioral activation treatment regimen, the psychotherapeutic technique utilizes many other activation strategies to catalyze change.8

Let’s be optimistic and imagine that the preceding discussion helped you move from the contemplative to the preparatory stage of change and that you are preparing to make a change in your exercise habits.19 How much exercise do you need to get before you can appreciate the mental health benefits?

Evidence suggests that an optimal exercise program is about 30 minutes in duration, has a frequency of 2-4 times per week, and is of such an intensity level that an individual achieves 70-80 percent estimated max heart rate.8

Recall that our maximal heart rate from our 30-year old example was calculated to be 187 bpm. This means that the targeted intensity level of exercise for mental health should achieve a heart rate between 130-150 bpm.

Finally, the individual should commit to at least four weeks of the new exercise program to optimize the chances for long-term habit formation. Evidence suggests that while 70 percent of individuals maintain a short-term exercise program, only 50 percent maintain the program for six months.8

We have covered a lot of ground in our exploration of the varied health benefits associated with exercise.

We began by discussing the significant benefits of exercise for our general medical health. We learned that exercise reduces rates of mortality, some cancers, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. For more on the mortality benefits of exercise visit our website Neuraptitude.org.

We next turned to exercise and mental health, studying depression as our archetype condition. We found that exercise can be considered a valid “antidepressant” or augmentation strategy in the treatment of depression and that its effects are comparable to antidepressant medication and psychotherapy.

As we discussed before, we are not comparing apples to apples, and direct comparisons between techniques are not fair outside of a given trial. Our point is not to assert the unrivaled superiority of exercise to psychopharmacologic agents, psychotherapeutic techniques, or other therapeutics. Rather, we wish to elevate exercise from a healthy lifestyle habit to an adjunct treatment.

And finally, let’s recall that exercising in natural outdoor settings, ideally in close proximity to a body of water, may enhance the health benefits associated with exercise.

The most effective treatment for a given mental illness is almost certainly to be pluralistic rather than singular. A holistic treatment strategy that targets biological, psychological, and sociological substrates of disease offers a significant synergistic advantage over a singular approach.

By Matthew Mackinnon, M.D.

Dr. MacKinnon is a psychiatric resident physician at the University of Washington who researches and writes about the neuroscientific intersection of mental health and mental illness. Dr. MacKinnon runs Neuraptitude.org, an online scientific publication dedicated to uncovering the natural capacities of the human mind by exploring topics that reveal, bit by bit, the intrinsic enormity latent within the brain.

 References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Physical activity and health. CDC.gov.https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/. Accessed November 12, 2016.
  2. Penedo FJ, Dahn JR. Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2005;18(2):189-193.
  3. Barton J, Pretty J. What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environ Sci Technol. 2010;44(10):3947-3955. doi:10.1021/es903183r.
  4. Tanaka H, Monahan KD, Seals DR. Age-predicted maximal heart rate revisited. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2001;37(1):153-156. doi:10.1016/S0735-1097(00)01054-8.
  5. Cohen J. Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences. 2nd ed. Hillsdale, N.J: L. Erlbaum Associates; 1988.
  6. Fritz CO, Morris PE, Richler JJ. Effect size estimates: Current use, calculations, and interpretation. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2012;141(1):2-18. doi:10.1037/a0024338.
  7. Sawilowsky S. New Effect Size Rules of Thumb. Theor Behav Found Educ Fac Publ. November 2009.http://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/coe_tbf/4.
  8. Stathopoulou G, Powers MB, Berry AC, Smits JAJ, Otto MW. Exercise Interventions for Mental Health: A Quantitative and Qualitative Review. Clin Psychol Sci Pract. 2006;13(2):179-193. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2850.2006.00021.x.
  9. Leucht S, Hierl S, Kissling W, Dold M, Davis JM. Putting the efficacy of psychiatric and general medicine medication into perspective: review of meta-analyses. Br J Psychiatry. 2012;200(2):97-106. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.111.096594.
  10. Huhn M, Tardy M, Spineli LM, et al. Efficacy of Pharmacotherapy and Psychotherapy for Adult Psychiatric Disorders: A Systematic Overview of Meta-analyses. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(6):706. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.112.
  11. Lisanby SH. Electroconvulsive Therapy for Depression. N Engl J Med. 2007;357(19):1939-1945. doi:10.1056/NEJMct075234.
  12. Paluska SA, Schwenk TL. Physical Activity and Mental Health.Sports 2000;29(3):167-180. doi:10.2165/00007256-200029030-00003.
  13. Stephens T. Physical activity and mental health in the United States and Canada: Evidence from four population surveys. Prev Med. 1988;17(1):35-47. doi:10.1016/0091-7435(88)90070-9.
  14. Taylor CB, Sallis JF, Needle R. The relation of physical activity and exercise to mental health. Public Health Rep. 1985;100(2):195-202.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1424736/. Accessed November 8, 2016.
  15. Hassmén P, Koivula N, Uutela A. Physical Exercise and Psychological Well-Being: A Population Study in Finland. Prev Med. 2000;30(1):17-25. doi:10.1006/pmed.1999.0597.
  16. Bowler DE, Buyung-Ali LM, Knight TM, Pullin AS. A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments. BMC Public Health. 2010;10:456. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-456.
  17. James P, Hart JE, Banay RF, Laden F. Exposure to Greenness and Mortality in a Nationwide Prospective Cohort Study of Women. Environ Health Perspect. 2016;124(9). doi:10.1289/ehp.1510363.
  18. Cuijpers P, van Straten A, Warmerdam L. Behavioral activation treatments of depression: A meta-analysis. Clin Psychol Rev. 2007;27(3):318-326. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2006.11.001.
  19. DiClemente CC, Prochaska JO, Fairhurst SK, Velicer WF, Velasquez MM, Rossi JS. The process of smoking cessation: An analysis of precontemplation, contemplation, and preparation stages of change. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1991;59(2):295-304. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.59.2.295.

 

The Ten Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques: An Interview with Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg

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I’m Dan Lukasik from Lawyerswithdepression.com. Today’s guest is Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg. Dr. Wehrenberg is a clinical psychologist in Naperville, Illinois. She is the author of six books on the treatment of anxiety and depression published by W.W. Norton, including, “The Ten Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques: Understanding How Your Brain Makes You Depressed and What You Can Do to Change It” and “Anxiety + Depression: Effective Treatment of the Big Two Co-Occurring Disorders.” An international trainer of mental health professionals, Dr. Wehrenberg coaches people with anxiety via the internet and phone. She’s a frequent contributor to the award-winning magazine, Psychotherapy Networker and she blogs on depression for the magazine Psychology Today.

Dan:

What is the difference between sadness and depression and why do people confuse the two so often?

Dr. Wehrenberg:

Because depression comprises sadness. Sadness is a response to a specific situation in which we usually have some kind of loss. The loss of a self-esteem, a loss of a loved one, the loss of a desired goal. Depression is really more about the energy – whether it’s mental energy or physical energy – to make an effective response. So, sadness is an appropriate and transient emotion, but depression sticks around and affects all of our daily behaviors and interactions.

Dan:

What causes depression? Sadness, as you say, is an appropriate response to loss.  What is depression a response to?  What are the causes of depression?

 Dr. Wehrenberg:

Over the course of my career, I’ve developed the idea that there are four potential causes to depression.  This comes from working with people for forty years; it comes from reading a lot of research.

genetics-at-work2

The first part is genetics. You are born with a brain that is going to tend toward depression because of the function of neurotransmitters in your brain. It’s a genetic predisposition towards depression. With poor self-care, poor nutrition, you may end up stimulating or starting that feeling of low energy, of low interest in the world around you. Then if you pull back from the world around you, now you start to have fewer experiences that keep you interested in the world.

Another possible and probable cause is with people who are experiencing situational stress that goes on, and on, and on. That could be the stress of not being able to earn enough money, and you’ve got two jobs, and kids, and a life filled with stress. It could be the stress that comes on while caring for someone in your family circle who’s got a disability, or a chronic illness; that increases with severity over time. So, you’re stuck in stress, and you deplete yourself. And you can become depressed.

The state of the depression is a lot like the state of being sick. If you had the flu, you wouldn’t feel like sitting around eating and drinking; you wouldn’t feel like playing a round of tennis. If somebody says, “Let’s watch a really interesting T.V. show” and you say, “No, I want to go to sleep instead,” that’s pulling back from the world is healing.  People have the same feeling when they’re depressed, but those feelings don’t lead toward healing because they’re persistent.

Two other causes that people would certainly be aware of are trauma or coming from early childhood adversity where early in your childhood you were not treated well, you were neglected, had some other abusive situation, and those two very difficult situations can lead people to function in a depressed way.

Dan:

Let’s talk about the issue of stigma. As a person who’s had depression for the past 15 years, it’s something that I’ve had to deal with. Why is there so much stigma surrounding depression?

Dr. Wehrenberg:

Part of it is because we have this mentality in this country that you should be able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And we look at people who are low energy, who aren’t completing tasks, and we judge them as doing it on purpose. People who aren’t depressed are of the impression that you could just decide to do it differently.

I was speaking with a 21-year old client of mine the other day who said, “I can’t make myself do the work, and I hate it that I am that lazy.” So, he judges himself as lazy, even though it’s the depression that’s robbing him of energy and mental tenacity. So, even depression sufferers judge themselves to be wrong, lazy, and bad and believe they should do better. So, I think the cultural expectation that you should be more productive. Also, people don’t see it as the medical problem it is. It’s just that it’s not a very “visible” medical problem.

Dan:

In the past 40 years or so that you’ve been a therapist and have treated people with depression, what have you observed about the rate of depression in our country and our understanding of it?

Dr. Wehrenberg:

I think the rate of depression, everybody would agree, is growing. More and more people are suffering depression.

man-stress_1296205c

There are different reasons why when we look at this.

Culturally, one of them is that American culture is a highly stressed culture.  But it’s stress not over life and death, but that’s certainly the case for many living in poverty who have to worry where their next meal is coming from, but usually, what we look at is the stress of always needing to be more, to do more, to get more status and money. That’s not a very good way to feel good about yourself because there’s a limit, a human limit of time, a limit of money, a limit of talent or ability, a limit to resources or access to achievement.

Dan:

Following up on what you just said earlier, you talked about some possible causes of depression including genetics and family of origin issues. Now you’re talking about American culture and its connection to depression. What is the connection?

Dr. Wehrenberg:

We have a culture that values productivity, money, and status, and not everybody can achieve goals of status or financial success and it gets depressing to see how valuable those seem to be in our country.

We don’t value something everybody can do. Like, be a person of good character. We value how much status you’ve got, which is very different.

Dr. Andrew Weil, who is a real guru of physical health and mental health, says he thinks that stress equals inflammation in your whole body and that inflammation is a trigger for depression.

Dan:

Why did you write the book, “The Ten Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques?” It’s a great read. I recommend all my listeners and readers at lawyerswithdepression.com to pick it up.

Dr. Wehrenberg:

I wrote it because I believe both consumers and therapists need ideas for what to do right now other than to investigate, in some more general way, a life history, what do you do today that will make you feel somewhat better, to start you moving out of the depression. I wanted to present as many practical ideas as I could that would help people start to lift out of depression with the help and advice of a therapist and also for the general public that could read this book and say, “Oh, there are things I can do that would make me feel better.” And they’re simple; they’re not complicated.

Dan:

Can you share with our listeners some of the techniques you recommend in your book?

Dr. Wehrenberg:

Let’s start with somebody with low energy. Almost everybody who is depressed is doing something even while they are depressed. Playing a game on their phone, watching T.V. or watching Netflix.  They are doing something. Unless, they are sleeping, of course.  But I want to use what you’re already doing to help motivate you to do something you think you should do. So, for example, I often see people with depression that aren’t doing good health care, they’re not doing good care of their environment, they are not doing dishes, they are not doing laundry, stuff like that. So if you just think about household stuff for a second, what I want my clients to do is to break down the task into its parts.

woman-worried-stressed-150821

If you’re going to do laundry, the first thing you have to do is pick it up off the floor. So, I don’t want you to think, “Oh, I’ve got to get all the laundry done.”  If you’re depressed, that won’t work. What I want you to do is think is, “All I have to do is pick up the dirty clothes in the family room and then I’m going to sit down for 15 minutes and do what I’m willing to do anyway – play a game on the phone, turn on Netflix. Set a timer for 15 minutes of enjoyment of your show and then when the timer goes off, you just get up and pick up the clothes off the floor of your bedroom. Little pieces, okay.

What we know about depression is those small accomplishments are perceived in the brain as positive and encouraging, and you start to feel, “Oh, I can do something for myself.” You begin to have just a little rise in your overall energy. If you can do that consistently, then pretty soon, you get the task of doing the laundry over with. It may take a few days, but it’s done. Then you have a positive self-appraisal. That’s what I’m going for, for example, with a very simple way to think about raising your energy through small increments.

Dan:

So the small steps and small behaviors affect neurochemistry?

Dr. Wehrenberg:

They do, indeed. Because when you take action and it has a positive outcome, you have just changed the level of the neurochemical called dopamine, which I call the “James Brown” of the brain.  It’s the “I feel good,” when dopamine is released in your brain you feel better. We know that people who decide, “I am going to do this,” and do it, they get a rise in dopamine and change your neurochemistry.

Dan:

I want to discuss your second book, “Anxiety + Depression: Effective Treatment of the Two Co-Occurring Disorders.” I struggle with both anxiety and depression with depression being the primary diagnosis. Many people I meet struggle with both.  Why do the two co-occur together and sometimes not?

Dr. Wehrenberg:

Very often, if you are looking at brain function and structure, what you see in people who have both anxiety and depression, which, by the way, is about fifty-percent of the time, is that people who have one, have the other. Often, the anxiety comes first, and it’s not treated well. There’s a neurochemical called serotonin which is related to something called rumination or you might think of it as “brooding.” When people brood, when they go over and over a failure or fear, they get stuck mentally. It raises anxiety because it’s hard to solve a problem that you’re just brooding about and it raises depression because you don’t feel like you’re moving very much in your behavior or your thinking. That’s a pretty simplistic statement. And people will say, yes, but there are far more theories about the underlying neurochemistry.  That’s true, but the chemistry that relates to brooding is related to both anxiety and depression, the repetitive, negative thinking.

Dan:

Regarding your history as a therapist treating people with anxiety and depression, are there some techniques that work better with anxiety versus depression? Or, do all these techniques work equally well with both conditions?

 Dr. Wehrenberg:

I think you have to look at the energy level. Some people with anxiety and also depression have a fair amount of energy to cope with the depressive quality of repetitive, negative thinking. And you use the energy of that anxious person to be more assertive with yourself to say, “I’m going to take charge of this.”

But what I also find that works very well with anxiety and depression together is to work on mindful awareness, to try to stay in the moment, not to try to predict a negative outcome, but rather to pull yourself into the moment. And mindfulness, which can be done by meditating to stay in the present moment, but you can also just keep pulling yourself back to this moment by saying to yourself, “What’s happening now?” This pulls you back from predicting negative outcomes and then getting upset about what might happen. If you stay in the now, you can say I can do this activity now, this action now, and all I have to worry about is now. And then you tend to get better outcomes. So, that’s good for both for anxiety and depression.

Anxiety is “I worry about the future; I fret about the past.” And depression includes, “I think the future will be grim.” So if you stay in the moment, you’re addressing both of them.

Dan:

As a psychologist and therapist who’s worked with people with anxiety and depression for decades, tell us a little bit why a person struggling with depression and anxiety should see a psychologist, a therapist? What benefit could be obtained from seeing someone such as yourself and how does that work?

Dr. Wehrenberg:

We know that medication, which is often people’s first choice, can be extremely helpful. But what I say to my clients is that medication can help you feel somewhat better, but it doesn’t teach you anything about managing your life. Psychotherapy, when it’s practical, when I’m looking at it through the “The Ten Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques,” what it’s teaching you is how to handle your negative mood, what to do when you don’t have energy. It’s teaching you behavior that will rewire your brain. It talks about how and why exercise and nutrition are important.

But also why taking even a small action on your behalf changes your neurochemistry.  So, psychotherapy immediately affects brain function. But, you usually need a psychotherapist to give you ideas, help you find ideas of how you stop yourself, how you block yourself, and to help you find the most effective tools for you in your specific situation. A psychotherapist can be very helpful in teaching you how to get rid of these negative symptoms and feel better for life.

Dan:

Dr. Wehrenberg, what’s the best way for our listeners and readers to get in contact with you?

Dr. Wehrenberg:

Well, if you’re able to spell my name, you can look me up on Margaretwehrenberg.com.  I work in Naperville, Illinois. But my website has my telephone contact and a link. And if you went to the Psychology Today magazine website, you can look at my blog on depression, and you would be able to contact me through there as well. I have a really good “Contact me” on my website.

Dan:

On behalf of your listeners at Lawyerswithdepression.com., I want to take the time to thank you for this insightful interview. I think it’s going to help many people.

Dr. Wehrenberg:

Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

 

 

The Trauma of Stress in the U.S. and its Connection to Depression

The NFL football draft just happened. I followed it because I’m a lover of the game.

I played as a kid. I now watch the games on TV with my other brother, Wally over pizza, hot chicken wings and lots of libations.  It’s almost a religious experience, full of pageantry, mystery and a sense of belonging that we feel as fans.

football collision

But as I grow older, my passion is tempered by news of the devastating toll playing such a violent game has on players.

I read a news piece a few days ago about former NFL player Brian Schaefering who played pro ball for five years.  He started a Gofundme page to raise $3000 to buy a service dog to assist him with stability issues resulting from the traumatic brain injury he sustained playing football.  Wow.

Jerome Bettis, a retired running back from the Pittsburgh Steelers, said that each collision he suffered during a game “was like being in a car accident.” What a tremendous cost to pay, I thought.

For many of us, daily life is so demanding and stressful, that, like a football player, it’s like being in a series of car accidents. The word “stress” doesn’t even seem to do justice the corrosive experience of so much stress– “trauma” is more like it.

The trauma isn’t the type inflicted by bone jarring hits during a football game, but it’s no less real – and can be disastrous for our physical and mental health.

trauma

In his book, The Everyday Trauma of Life, psychiatrist Mark Epstein writes in a recent New York Times article,

“Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death (and its cousins: old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss) hangs over all of us. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.”

Such trauma not only impacts our psychological/emotional and spiritual selves, but our physical brains.

brain

In a brilliant article in the Wall Street Journal, Stress Starts Up The Machinery of Major Depression, Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D., points out that there are many factors that increase our risk of major depression including genes, childhood trauma, and endocrine and immunological abnormalities.

But stress is a frequent trigger.

Sapolsky writes, “The stress angle concerns ‘anhedonia,’ psychiatric jargon for ‘the inability to feel pleasure.’ Anhedonia is at the core of the classic definition of major depression as ‘malignant sadness’”.

As a person who has a genetic history of depression in his family and childhood trauma, I was drawn into Sapolsky’s article. What was the connection between stress and the malignant sadness I’ve experienced off and on since being diagnosed with depression twelve years ago?

Who would have thought that rat brain research would help me understand the link?

Sapolsky gives us a little background about our brain structure by letting us know that our abilities to anticipate, pursue and feel pleasure revolve around a neurotransmitter called dopamine in a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Then he turns to the rats for further illumination:

“Put a novel object – say, a ball – in a mouse’s cage. When the mouse encounters the ball and explores it, the arousing mystery, puzzle and challenge cause the release of a molecule in the nucleus accumbens called CRF, which boost dopamine release. If an unexpected novel object was a cat, that mouse’s brain would work vey differently. But getting the optimal amount of challenge, what we’d call ‘stimulation,’ feels good.”

We humans need just enough challenge and stress to make life interesting.

“CRF mediates this reaction: Block the molecule’s actions with a drug, and you eliminate the dopamine surge and the exploration,” writes Sapolsky. “But exposing a mouse to major, sustained stress for a few days changes everything. CRF no longer enhances dopamine release, and the mouse avoids the novel object. Moreover, the CRF is now aversive: Spritz it into the nucleus accumbens, and the mouse now avoids the place in the cage where that happened. The researchers showed that this is due to the effects of stress hormones called glucocorticoids. A switch has been flipped; stimuli that would normally evoke motivated exploration and a sense of reward now evoke the opposite. Strikingly, those few days of stress caused that anhedonic state to last in those mice for at least three months.”

Sapolsky concludes:

“But meanwhile, these findings have an important implication. Life throws lousy things at us; at times, we all get depressed, with a small letter “d.” And most people—as the clichés say—get back in the saddle; prove that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. What then to make of people who are incapacitated by major depression in the clinical sense? Unfortunately, for many, an easy explanation is that the illness is a problem of insufficient gumption: ‘Come on, pull yourself together.’ There is a vague moral taint.”

The trauma of everyday stress is an important player in major depression. When combined with genetic history and childhood neglect or trauma, it can tip the applecart and result in what Andrew Solomon calls “The Noonday Demon”.   The takeaway is that the better we get at managing the “trauma of everyday life”, the better chance we have at preventing depression.

My worry is that the society we’ve created and the hectic lives we lead make the management of stress very difficult, indeed.

 

 

 

The Deadzone of Depression

There is a zone in a depressed person’s life where nothing seems to happen — except the pain of the absence of everything. 

Kay Redfield Jamison, M.D., in her book, Night Falls Fast, writes:

I wish I could explain it so someone could understand it. I’m afraid it’s something I can’t put into words. There’s just this heavy, overwhelming despair – dreading everything. Dreading life. Empty inside, to the point of numbness. It’s like there’s something already dead inside.

Such anguish is so overwhelming that every other concern is squashed in its wake.  Our capacity for willful actions seems to be gone; we can’t “figure it out.”  We are stuck.

I have learned a lot about the zone over the years and how to handle it.  It’s really like surfing a giant wave.  To handle these waves, you study them and prepare yourself for when the next big one rolls in.

When I feel I’m entering a Dead Zone, I start a deliberate and kind conversation with myself that is practiced and rehearsed.  I don’t let the toxic voice of depression drown me out.  It’s important to empower ourselves in whatever ways we can during these times because depression will lead you to falsely conclude that you’re helpless to lift your dark mood.  This conclusion is one of the central tenets of depression; one of its main “themes”.  We need to create – and we can – different and healthier themes for our lives.

Start with a three-by-five index card.  Use it to create your own deliberate and kind script of themes for yourself that day.  Here’s is an example of what I had written on one of my cards:

— This depression isn’t forever. It will pass.

— I have handled it in the past. I will handle it now.

— Get out of my head – don’t sit around and ruminate.

I usually write a new card out every morning.  When depression is absent (and there are long periods of time when it is), the theme of the card might be more celebratory or grateful:

— I appreciate all of the goodness in my life.

— Thank you God for all of the wonderful people you’ve put in my life.

— I am happy that I am not experiencing depression today.

According to psychologist, Deb Serani, Psy.D, there are both emotional and psychological reasons why this is so:

So, why do these gratitude experiences boost happiness and alleviate depression? Scientists say that these techniques shift our thinking from negative outcomes to positive ones, elicit a surge of feel good hormones like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, and build enduring personal connections.

The insight and reflection of counting these moments is what makes the practice of gratitude so powerful. But the key to combating depression is making these positive experiences part of the fabric of your life.

Try this for a while and see if it helps you. Don’t wait until you are in the zone of depression to construct the cards because your thinking during such times will be distorted.

Doing this is a healthy and self-empowering step that you can take today.

By Daniel T. Lukasik, Esq.

 

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