Uplift: How Pushing Weights Lifts My Depression

“Human beings are designed for regular physical activity. The sedentary nature of modern life probably plays a significant role in the epidemic incidence of depression today.”  Andrew Weil, M.D.

After a long winter and dreadful May of rain and cold temperatures, beautiful June is finally here. The sunlight is filtering through the green tree leaves and warm air blowing across my hair.

Summer’s a great time to start investing in your health again after winter’s hibernation.  People are out walking or working in their gardens.  This whole time of year screams “move!”  I have added weight training as part of my moving routine.  Maybe you can, too.

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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