My Family, My Depression

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in the moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Like all parents, my Mom and Dad were flawed people – as I am. Yet, they were something more than that.

I’ve struggled to understand them much of my adult life; maybe more so now that they’re both gone. Here’s a picture of them from 1946 cleaning up the reception hall after a two-day celebration.

The nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote:

The Neuroscience of Depression: An Interview with Dr. Alex Korb

new-korb

The following is an edited transcript of the podcast recorded interview with Dr. Alex Korb.  This transcript has not been reviewed and is not a word-by-word rendering of the entire interview.

Hi, I’m Dan Lukasik from lawyerswithdepression.com. Today’s guest is Dr. Alex Korb.  Dr. Korb is a neuroscientist, writer, and coach.  He’s studied the brain for over fifteen years, attending Brown University as an undergraduate and earning his Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. He has over a dozen peer-reviewed journal articles on depression and is also the author of the book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression One Small Change at a Time. Interesting, he’s also coached the UCLA Women’s Ultimate Freesbie team for twelve seasons and is a three-time winner for Ultimate Coach of the Year.  His expertise extends into leadership and motivation, stress and anxiety, mindfulness, physical fitness, and even standup comedy. Welcome to the show.

Dr. Korb:

Thank you, great to be here.

Dan:

Let’s begin for our audience.  You’re a neuroscientist. What is neuroscience?

Dr. Korb:

Neuroscience is simply the study of the brain and nervous system. It’s a branch of biology, but it also incorporates aspects of psychology, psychiatry, and neurobiology.  It’s anything that’s going on in the brain and nervous system all under the purview of neuroscience.

Dan:

You’ve studied depression as a neuroscientist?

Dr. Korb:

Yes, that’s what I wrote my dissertation on. The aspect of neuroscience that I’m most interested in is what underlies the neural basis for our moods and emotions, behaviors, and psychiatric illnesses. Some peer-reviewed articles look at schizophrenia as well as other psychiatric disorders like depression which have a lot of basis in neuroscience and we just don’t fully understand what is happening in the brain.

Dan:

Based on your research, can you tell us what’s going on in the brain when someone is suffering from depression?

Dr. Korb:

The best way to describe it is a dysfunction in frontal-limbic communication. To simplify it, there’s a problem with the way the thinking, feeling, and action circuits in the brain are communicating with each other.  Those all have different regions of the brain that are more dedicated to each aspect of thoughts, feelings, and actions. But, normally, there’s a dynamic of how these regions are supposed to communicate with each other, and there’s something with depression that’s a little bit off.

Dan:

Can the same be said for anxiety as far as what’s going on in the brain?

theupwardspiralcover

Dr. Korb:

Yes, anxiety and depression have a lot of overlap regarding the neuroscience and neurobiology behind them.  A lot of the same brain regions are involved. For example, the amygdala, which is often called the fear center of the brain, but is involved in a lot of emotional expressions, that’s one of the core emotion regions in the brain, and it plays a role in both depression and anxiety.  And there’s just a lot of overlap in brain regions, and neurochemistry that underlies these disorders and it’s one of the reasons why anxiety is one of the most common features of depression and they often co-occur together.

Dan:

When I’ve tried to explain what I was suffering from, and my symptoms and I called it “depression,” most people didn’t have any frame of reference for that. They usually thought of it as “sadness.” With respect to sadness and depression, are there different areas of the brain that pertain to sadness that are different from clinical depression?

Dr. Korb:

There’s a lot of overlap between sadness and depression, but a lot of the misunderstanding that people have is that we use the term depression and sadness, “I’m feeling depressed” or, “I’m feeling sad,” we use those colloquially, very interchangeably.

But medically, or neuroscientifically, they’re very different.

Depression and the diagnosis of depression are a lot more than simple sadness.  In fact, a lot of people who suffer from depression don’t feel sad per se. They can often feel an emptiness where emotion should be.  They have a lot of other symptoms such as hopelessness and feelings of helplessness, guilt and shame, isolation, and anxiety can be a part of it.

They can have fatigue, problems falling asleep or staying asleep or even sleeping too much and, generally, the things that they used to find enjoyable they no longer find enjoyable. Everything just feels very difficult.

traffic-jam-nh8_2a90fd92-1030-11e6-a855-9958039a7c6d

It’s hard to explain to someone why it’s difficult because it seems like it shouldn’t be. It’s a much deeper feeling of being stuck than most people experience.  I think the average person if you can think of how you felt after the week of your greatest heartbreak, that sort of touches the edge of what it means to be depressed. It’s not the depth of how badly you feel, but that you can’t escape it. For example, I like to think of depression as a traffic jam.  When you enter a traffic jam, sometimes there’s an accident. The cars are stopped, and you sit there and wait.  And you don’t know how long the traffic jam is going to be. But for most people, it was just a little stoppage on their way. But for people with depression, it’s something that their brain just can’t quite escape. They can try and try, but their brain is stuck in the pattern of activity that just drags along, and the traffic jam just continues.

Dan:

That’s a great explanation of the experience of depression. Both what’s going on in the brain and psychologically. I think people want to know what are some of the causes of depression? Many people once they’ve often been diagnosed try to figure out for themselves, and people who care about them try to figure out?

Dr. Korb:

Depression can have a huge number of different causes. This is where the traffic jam analogy does a lot to help us understand depression. If you see a traffic jam, you can say, “Oh, what caused it?” Well, a traffic jam can come from any number of causes. There’s construction on the freeway, or there was an accident, there was heavy rain or fog, or it could just be that everyone decided to leave work at the same time, and there’s no specific “cause,” it’s just that the interaction – the dynamic interaction – of all those cars just reaches a tipping point.

With depression, it’s the same way. Often, it can be precipitated by a big life event such as a divorce, or breakup, or death in the family. Or smaller life events such as a perceived emotional embarrassment or you didn’t get that promotion.  But, often it’s not “caused” by anything.  It’s just the dynamic interaction of your brain circuits with each other, combined with the sum of your current life circumstances, which causes the brain to get stuck in a certain pattern of activity and reactivity.

That’s much more likely to happen for some people than others because some people’s brains are just more at risk for falling into that pattern. This can be based on the genes you got from your parents, and your early childhood experiences and the coping patterns you’ve been doing your whole life shaped the neurocircuitry and neurochemistry of your particular brain.  So, it’s not always a specifically, identifiable cause.  I think that’s one of the reasons why people, sometimes, don’t quite believe that it’s real or don’t think they should be suffering it. But, it’s very similar to that traffic analogy where it just “sort of happened” for seemingly no reason. It’s just caused by the fact that is vague, nonlinear, dynamic system.

Dan:

Why did you write the book, The Upward Spiral? There are plenty of scientists out there who study depression, but not many of them write a book for the general public on the topic.  What is it that led you to write this kind of book?

Dr. Korb:

I just realized that there was so much useful neuroscience out there that wasn’t being effectively delivered to the people who needed it most. One of the things that made me realize that is from when I was coaching Ultimate Freesbie. After a few months, one of the girls on the team revealed to me that she had been suffering from major depression and that she’d been suffering for years, and, tragically, many months later she ended up committing suicide. It was a devastating event in my life. This was back when I was still studying neuroscience, but before I had decided to go to grad school and study depression. That event led me to want to understand exactly what was going on in her brain that could lead her to do something like that. How could the brain get stuck in a disease like this?

That lead me to going to grad school and doing my dissertation on depression to try and understand and share some of these things with other people. As I was doing my dissertation, I realized that, yes, it’s good to advance the science, but there was already so much good science out there that was so beneficial. I didn’t think that anyone was doing a good enough job communicating clearly exactly about what was happening in the brain in depression and about all the little life changes that you can make that have measurable effects on brain activity and brain chemistry.

gratitude-2

Dan:

The second part of your book is devoted to eight specific things you can do to alleviate depression. Quickly, they exercise your brain, set goals and make decisions, give your brain a rest, develop positive habits, biofeedback, develop the ‘gratitude circuit,’ the power of others, and your brain in therapy. We don’t have enough time to focus on all eight, so why don’t we focus in on one or two. What I thought was fascinating is that you give the backdrop for what is going on in the brain when you do these things.  A few things that popped into my mind were gratitude and your brain in therapy. What about gratitude? How can it help depression?

Dr. Korb:

Gratitude can have a lot of powerful effects on the brain. And one of the reasons going back to why I wrote this book, is that there are tons of books out there that will tell you different life changes that you can make that will help with depression, but I’ve found that a lot of them are unsatisfying because they don’t explain, why. Therefore, it’s not as convincing, and it’s very easy for people to dismiss.

So when I talk about gratitude and how practicing gratitude can be so powerful in overcoming depression, a lot of people can resist that idea because it sounds so hokey.  But if I can point to specific neuroscience studies that show that it has measurable effects in changing brain activity and brain chemistry, then you’re much more likely to do it and it gives you a much better understanding of what’s going on. Gratitude has been shown to, if people who keep a gratitude journal, improve the quality of their sleep, and sleep symptoms of depression are one of the causes of depression. The reason why I called my book, The Upward Spiral because depression can sort of be seen as a “downward spiral” where one symptom or one event can lead to seemingly to a whole cascade of events that keep you stuck. So, gratitude can help break the downward spiral that’s coming from sleep problems that are leading to difficulty in concentration, and that’s one place to break the loop.

Dan:

After reading the chapter on gratitude, I picked up a spiral notebook and started a gratitude list. It was more of a lifetime gratitude list. It’s amazing. I came up with eighty things. I was surprised. So often my experience with depression is that we ruminate about negative things. We just don’t take the time, or don’t have the skill to savor and reflect on the good things in our lives.  It seems what you’re saying is that this practice has effects in the brain.

Dr. Korb:

Yes, when you’re in a depressed state it’s much harder to see the positive aspects of your life. But that’s why it’s all the more important to build a habit of looking for those positive things because often the most important feature of gratitude is not finding something to be grateful for. It’s remembering to look in the first place because that activates the prefrontal cortex which is the more thinking part of the brain which helps it to regulate the emotional regions of the brain that are going haywire in depression.

And gratitude increases activity in the key region of the brain called the cingulate cortex that sits at the intersection between the emotional limbic system and the rational prefrontal cortex and helps modulate communication between those. Remembering things in your past that you are happy or grateful for actually increases the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin in that same brain region and serotonin is one of the most common targets for antidepressant medications.  Practicing gratitude is having effects in key brain regions that we know contribute to depression and in the neurotransmitter systems that are contributing to depression.

Dan:

I also found it interesting your chapter on our brains and therapy. What’s interesting is that many people who treat with a therapist find comfort and solace in going to therapy when they are struggling with depression. They walk out, and they often do feel better at times don’t’ always understand why they feel better.  Or, we know, there’s a recent study from National Institute of Mental Health, which concluded that as many as eighty percent of people in this country get no treatment for depression whether it be antidepressants or therapy.  So, why is it important, if at all, for people to go to therapy who struggle with depression?

Dr. Korb:

The chapter that I wrote on therapy encompasses not just psychotherapy – going to talk to someone – but it also includes medical therapy such as antidepressant medication or other forms of therapy like neuromodulation techniques. These have been demonstrated through rigorous, double-blind studies that show they have powerful effects on treating depression.  Going to see a professional if you think you are depressed is a hugely important step because they can put at your disposal all the advances of western medicine.

What’s interesting – and it’s the last chapter in the book – and it’s funny how many comments I get because they say, “You left antidepressants to the end because it’s not that important and there are other life changes people can do.” Another psychiatrist will say to me, “Why are you so dismissive of antidepressant medication? They are hugely important in the treatment of depression.”  It’s neither of those. I agree that antidepressants and psychotherapy are extremely important in the treatment of depression, and if you think you are suffering from depression, you should go to see a health professional whether it’s just your doctor or you go to see a psychotherapist.

I just don’t think antidepressants are the entire answer.

For some people, I would say about one-third of people suffering from depression; antidepressants are the answer. You can get over your depression completely simply be taking a pill. You don’t know if you might be one of those people. So, you might as well see a doctor and find out.

For the other half or two-thirds of people, antidepressant medication can still be a huge part of the answer, even if it’s not the entire answer. Taking antidepressants can also help you make these other small life changes such as increasing exercise, or changing your sleep habits, or practicing gratitude.  As you make the other small life changes, then things can start to spiral upward.

Dan:

It’s been an informative and very interesting interview with you Dr. Korb.  I want to thank you for being on the show and I highly recommend listeners to pick up and read his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression One Small Change at a Time.  Join us next week for another interesting interview at Lawyerswithdepression.com.

I encourage everyone to check out Dr. Korb’s website at alexkorbphd.com.

 

Depression and Suicide: A Catholic Perspective

As a psychiatrist, I had been aware, prior to his death, that Robin Williams struggled with a severe mood disorder – major depression and bipolar disorder, depending on the source of the reporting – along with related problems and drug dependence.

The vast majority of suicides are associated with some form of clinical depression, which in its more serious forms can be a sort of madness that drives people to despair – leading to a profound and painful sense of hopelessness and even delusional thinking about oneself, the world and the future.

I knew all of this, and yet this death still shocked and surprised me, as it shocked and surprised so many others. Williams seemed to be the consummate humorist, the funny man who would be just so much fun to be around. Unlike some comedians who trade only on irony and cutting humor, Williams appeared to us as a warm, big-hearted, endlessly fun, brilliantly quick, incredibly talented man. Though he was a celebrity, he was the kind of person that people felt like they knew – like the cousin, everyone just adores and hopes will show up at the family reunion.  Williams was the kind of guy that people wanted to be friends with, the kind of person that one wanted to invite to the party.

This is not the typical stereotype of mental illness, which why the typical stereotype must be relinquished: Quite simply, it is false.

Mental illness can afflict anyone, of any temperament and personality. In the wake of his death, the strange truth gradually began to sink in: In spite of outward appearances, Williams’ mind was afflicted by a devastating disorder that proved every bit as deadly as a heart attack or cancer. He suffered in ways that are difficult for most people to imagine.

Why couldn’t Williams see himself as other saw him – as a person of immense gifts and talents, a man who stood at the pinnacle of achievement in the world of comedy and entertainment?

Why couldn’t he see himself as God saw him – as a beloved child, a human soul of immense worth, a person for whom Christ died?

This is the tragedy of depression, which is so often misunderstood by those who have not suffered its effects.

Novelist William Styron – whose memoir Darkness Visible represents one of the best first-person attempts to describe the experience of depression – complains that the very word “depression” is a pale and inadequate term for such a terrible affliction.  It is a pedestrian noun that typically represents a dip in the road or an economic downtown. Styron prefers the older term “melancholia,” which conjures images of a thick, black fog that descends on the mind and saps the body of all vitality.

Indeed, the title of his book – Darkness Visible – comes from John Milton’s description of hell in Paradise Lost. We’re not talking about hitting a rough patch in life or the everyday blues that we all experience from time to time. We are talking about a serious, potentially fatal, disorder of mind and brain.

Fortunately, in most cases, depression is amenable to treatment. Because the illness is complex – involving biological, psychological, social, relational and, in some cases, behavioral and spiritual factors – the treatment likewise can be complex. Medications may have a very important role, but so do psychotherapy, behavioral approaches, social support and spiritual direction.

In some cases, hospitalization may be necessary, especially when an afflicted individual is in the throes of suicidal thinking or when one’s functioning is so impaired from the illness that he or she has difficulty getting out of bed or engaging in daily activities. For the severely depressed, even brushing one’s teeth can seem like an almost impossibly difficult chore.

This level of impairment is often puzzling to outsiders – to the spouse or parent who is trying to help the loved one. Unlike cancer or a broken bone, the illness here is hidden from sight. But the functional impairments can be every bit as severe.

I recall one patient, a married Catholic woman with several children and grandchildren, who had suffered from both life-threatening breast cancer and from severe depression. She once told me that, if given the choice, she would choose cancer over the depression, since the depression caused her far more intense suffering. Though she had been cured of cancer, she tragically died by suicide a few years after she stopped seeing me for treatment.

Depression is neither laziness nor weakness of will, nor a manifestation of a character defect. It needs to be distinguished from spiritual states, such as what St. Ignatius described as spiritual desolation and what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul.

Tragically, even with good efforts aimed at treatment, some cases of depression still lead to suicide – leaving devastated family members who struggle with loss, guilt, and confusion.

The Church teaches that suicide is a sin against love of God, love of oneself and love of neighbor.  On the other hand, the Church recognizes that an individual’s moral culpability for the act of suicide can be diminished by mental illness, as described in the Catechism: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”

The Catechism goes on to say: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”

Robin Williams’ death – like the death of so many others by suicide who have suffered from severe mental illness – issued from an unsound mind afflicted by a devastating disorder. Depression affects not just a person’s moods and emotions; it also constricts a person’s thinking – often to the point where the person feels entirely trapped and cannot see any way out of his mental suffering. Depression can destroy a person’s capacity to reason clearly; it can severely impair his sound judgment, such that a person suffering in this way is liable to do things, which, when not depressed, he would never consider. Our Lord’s ministry was a ministry of healing, in imitation of Christ, we are called to be healers as well. Those who suffer from mental-health problems should not bear this cross alone. As Christians, we need to encounter them, to understand them and to bear their burdens with them.

We should begin with the premise that science and religion, reason and faith are in harmony. Our task is to integrate insights from all these sources – medicine, psychology, the Bible, and theology – in order to understand mental illness and to help others to recover from it. In cases where recovery proves difficult or impossible, we pray for the departed and never abandon those who still struggle.

Aaron Kheriaty, M.D., is associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California-Irvine School of Medicine. He is the co-author with Msgr. John Cihak of The Catholic Guide to Depression.

Wiring of ‘Little Brain’ Linked to Multiple Forms of Mental Illness

Having a single mental illness like anxiety, depression or schizophrenia is hard enough on its own. But studies consistently show that up to half of people with one mental illness also experience one or more additional forms of mental illness at the same time.The high numbers of patients who suffer from multiple forms of mental illness has many researchers shifting focus away from studying individual disorders and instead hunting for common mechanisms or risk factors that might cause all types of mental disorders. Read the rest of the news here.

How Untreated Depression Contributes to the Opioid Epidemic

The Atlantic reports: “Several researchers now believe depression, one of the most common medical diagnoses in the U.S., might be one underlying cause that’s driving some patients to seek out prescription opioids and to use them improperly. People with depression show abnormalities in the body’s release of its own, endogenous, opioid chemicals. Depression tends to exacerbate pain—it makes chronic pain last longer and hurts the recovery process after surgery.” Read the rest of the story here.

Diet and Depression: Is There a Link?

U.S. News & World Report states, “If it’s true that ‘you are what you eat’ – and research is increasingly confirming that truism – then what you eat certainly has an impact on mental health. Finding a direct link between certain foods and the prevention or treatment of depression is hard, however. A cause-and-effect relationship “is a hotly debated issue,” says Dr. Steven C. Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Read the rest of this news article here.

The Heart of the Matter: Lawyers, Anger, and Depression

I’ve felt plenty of anger over my twenty-five years as a litigator.

Sometimes, and thank God they were few and far between, I would blow up at opposing counsel or a client.  More often, my anger would sometimes simmer just below the surface.  This is an all too common reality for today’s lawyer.  “By definition, the adversarial system is conflict-ridden, and conflict creates certain types of emotions like anger, guilt, and fear, which causes stress, says Amiram Elwork, Ph.D. author of the book, Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction.

According to Chicago litigator, Shawn Wood, the “nature of civil litigation involves two lawyers (often Type A personalities) squaring off against one another under circumstances where there will be a winner and a loser, and part of each lawyer’s job will be to capitalize on any possible error in judgment that the other side makes.”  I really don’t buy into this completely.  Many lawyers that I know aren’t “Type A” personalities.  They are usually hard working and successful.  But, it can take a tremendous toll on their mental and physical health.  They struggle with the simmering variety of anger.

Interview with Dr. John Greden, Director of the U. of Michigan Depression Center

Today’s podcast interview is with Dr. John Greden, Professor of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences in the Department of Psychiatry, Founder and Executive Director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, Founding Chair, National Network of Depression Centers. His research over the past 30 years has focused on studying biomarkers and developing treatment strategies to prevent recurrences of depression and bipolar disorders.

Listen to my interview with him on Itunes or Google Play.

Please note that it takes Apple and Google Play time to upload podcasts interviews. If this interview is not available, check back a little bit later.

Built by Staple Creative