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.

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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.

 

 

Down is the Way to Well-being: The Dangers of Living at Altitude

Parker Palmer, Ph.D., writes, “When you’re depressed, it seems insulting, even insane for someone to suggest that the soul-sucking spawn of Satan that has sunk its claws into you is your BFF. And yet, as time went by, the image of depression as a befriending force began to work on me, slowly reframing my misery and helping me find a way through. Something in me knew what my therapist knew: down is the way to well-being.” Read the Blog

The Connection between Depression and Trauma and Neglect

Why do people become depressed? A popular theory is that it is the brain chemistry that is in disarray. But this way of thinking often obscures the issue.

Depression rarely comes out of nowhere. It almost always has an explanation, even if it is not apparent to us. Also, read “What is Your Depression Telling You?”

A better explanation for why many people become depressed is, in my opinion, that we develop vulnerabilities earlier on in our life that predispose us to live a life that is lacking in zest, enjoyment, and meaning.

Oftentimes these earlier vulnerabilities point us to experiences of trauma, neglect, or interpersonal disappointments that may or may not be fully apparent to us.

We almost all undergo some kind of trauma, neglect, or serious interpersonal disappointments at some point in our life, and how we deal with these events can prepare the ground for a later depressive episode. To understand why this is is to understand how humans function.

 Responding to Trauma by Losing Ourselves:

When we go through difficult events that we don’t know how to deal with, our psyche responds just like a lizard that loses its tail because it is afraid of a predator. It helps us make an adaptation out of fear, but always at the cost of making us a little less human, or little less ourselves.

Overwhelming shame, for example, might make us abandon a piece of who we are, or in the worst case, our entire person.

How Sexual Abuse Can Lead to Depression:

If I was sexually abused, for example, and didn’t know how to deal with my conflicted emotions and loyalties, it might make me feel bad about wanting and desiring. I might be confused about whether I myself sent out the wrong signals, and might question if the sensation of pleasure I felt, really meant that I desired the abuse, or that my desires are bad.

The psychological compromise I can make to rid myself of my shame is to begin to live a passive life where my awareness of my desires and wants is dimmed, or totally banished. This might mean that I get involved in relationships that are not particularly good for me, that I put up with mistreatment or one-sided relationships because I am reluctant to say “no”, or that I unconsciously seek out bad relationships because I at some level believe I should not get what I really want, or deserve to be punished in some way to atone for my badness.

This compromise I have made to deal with the unbearable experience of sexual abuse has now prepared me for life of lackluster results and lack of enjoyment.

If I become depressed, this is therefore not because there is something wrong with my brain. It is because some part of me doesn’t want the life that I have. My depression is like the last call to me deep from within that indicates that I need to make changes to my life situation because the status quo is antithetical to life. My adaptations to a difficult situation, have now become destructive to what life is really about. Life has turned against life, and my depression is thankfully alerting me to this fact.

Trauma Comes in Many Forms:

Trauma does not have to imply a big dramatic calamitous event, but can refer to any moment when we felt overwhelmed with painful or distressing emotions we did not get the help to deal with. Sexual abuse, physical violence, or growing up with alcoholic parents are some of the more apparent reasons why a person might get exposed to emotional overwhelm, but there are many others.

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One of the more frequent causes of adaptations out of fear is the fear of losing love from the people we depend on. In Alice Miller’s book “The Gifted Child”, she describes how this can happen due to growing up with narcissistic parents.

A child, she says, has the need to look into their parent’s eyes and see themselves reflected. If I cry, I need my parent to validate that I am feeling sad, and if I am happy, I need my parents to be happy for me. Unfortunately, some of us look into our parents eyes, and see our parents feelings, not our own. When we are sad, they feel inadequate and get annoyed with us. When we are excited, they are too busy watching TV, and tell us to shush.

These kinds of experiences when they accumulate over time can create serious distortions to our self-image, and can make us abandon ourselves in a pursuit to become more acceptable to our parents.

Research has shown that threats to our sense of safe connection with a caregiver register in our brain as panic, and that losing our connection completely registers as pain. To avoid feeling these unbearable emotions, we will do a lot, even if it means ridding ourselves of our natural spontaneous desires and feelings.

Other ways to deal with the threat of loss is to become numb, or to become what the psychiatrist Karl Jaspers has described as a “dead person with wakeful eyes”.

What Does Depression Have to Do with It?

When we pay too big of a price to stay safe early on in life, we enter into adulthood ill prepared to deal with life’s challenges.

If we have gotten used to numbing ourselves to unpleasant emotions, we will likely also find it difficult to feel joy and excitement.

If we have learned to live our life in an effort to please our parents, our accomplishments won’t really mean much to us, and we will pursue goals that are not aligned with what we really want.

If we had to abandon ourselves because of shame about our needs or our feelings, we will forever have a sense of emptiness inside because we aren’t fully honoring and accepting who we are.

In many cases, when we really look at the reasons why people become depressed, we find a childhood history of trauma, abandonment, or neglect that has resulted in adaptations that are currently getting in the way of living a meaningful life.

Depression is often simply telling us that we are not really living our lives as ourselves.

To resolve this situation is to confront the underlying reasons why we make the choices we do, and to see to what extent we are really living a life based on avoiding shame, anxiety, guilt, and pain, and not a life based on our genuine feelings, needs, and aspirations.

Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., is a psychologist and depression specialist in Houston, Texas. He is the owner of Better Therapy, a therapy practice for people who want to discover the underlying roots of their current psychological problems.

 

 

“Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz” – Oh, What a Relief it is? Our Relationship with Antidepressants

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Most folks with depression have a complicated relationship with their antidepressant medications.

I certainly do.

While these pills saved my life years ago when major depression struck, years later, I often wonder if I still need to take them, or, if they’re still effective.

If I feel tired and flat on a particular afternoon, is it depression, the side effects of my meds or a jumble of both? Or maybe, it’s just my persistently pensive nature?

I think about this a lot these days – and maybe you do as well.

While the one-two punch of Cymbalta and Lamictal have kept me out of the dungeon of major depression for years, its comes with a cost. I have interludes of passivity, numbness, and fatigue. Maybe a low-grade depression at times, as well. If I ditch the drugs, maybe I will feel more “alive,” I think. I fantasize that cutting my ties with meds could lessen the days lost to the deadening grayness of a medically induced sense of normalcy I sometimes go through.

But I also feel anxiety. If I went cold turkey and lived medication-free, would it end, well, in disaster? A return to the swampland of depression? A deadman’s land if ever there was one. Can I take that chance? Should I?

There’s scary research that suggests once you stop antidepressants that work (or sort-of-work) for you and try to go back on the same ones because being off of them caused your depression to return (or you just couldn’t tolerate the horrible side effects that can come with discontinuation), there’s a good chance they won’t be as effective.

So, what’s a depressed person supposed to do? What should I do?

There are two camps that offer some guidance on this issue. Both have persuasive arguments about why those afflicted should or shouldn’t stay on meds.

The Stay on the Meds Camp

If depression is an “illness,” like diabetes or heart disease, I need these meds to balance out my of whacky neurochemistry. Given my risk factors: a family history of depression (genetics), a crazy childhood with a nutty, abusive and alcoholic father, and a high-pressure job with too much stress, I should stay on the pills.

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In his insightful essay in the New York Times, In Defense of Antidepressants, psychiatrist, Peter Kramer, author of the best-selling books, Listening to Prozac and Against Depression, suggest that studies show this: for mild or moderate depression, talk-therapy is as or more effective that medication. But for the Moby Dick sized sucker called Major Depression? Medications are warranted, and, indeed, lifesavers. They help many to function and live productive lives, albeit with a range of mild to more severe side effects.

The Get off the Meds Camp

Some people (including psychiatrists) see meds as the devil’s handiwork: supposed chemical solutions to emotional problems that flat-out don’t work. Many psychiatrists’ (and family doctors who write the overwhelming majority of scripts for these drugs in the U.S.), they maintain, are “pill pushers” who do the bidding of “BigPharma”, a multi-billion dollar industry in this country. Antidepressants aren’t so much a cure as a curse.

Irving Kirsh, Ph.D., author of The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, writes:

“Putting all [the research] together leads to the conclusion that the relatively small difference between drugs and placebos might not be a real drug effect at all. Instead, it might be an enhanced placebo effect, produced by the fact that some patients have broken [the] blind and have come to realize whether they were given drug or placebo. If this is the case, then there is no real antidepressant drug effect at all. Rather than comparing placebo to drug, we have been comparing ‘regular’ placebos to ‘extra-strength’ placebos.”

The remedy from this group? Psychotherapy. They see depression as the result of off-kiltered, negative thinking patterns. The way out of these ruminative, pessimistic thoughts involves working with a therapist who uses, most often, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to challenge and encourage patients to replace such thoughts with more realistic and positive ones.

In his book Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You, Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. argues that both therapy and medication are effective, but limited in certain respects.  He advocates an additional factor often overlooked in depression recovery: our own habits. Unwittingly we get good at depression. We learn how to hide it, how to work around it. We may even achieve great things, but with constant struggle rather than satisfaction. Relying on these methods to make it through each day, we deprive ourselves of true recovery, of deep joy and healthy emotion.

The book teaches us how to replace depressive patterns with a new and more effective set of skills. We already know how to “do” depression-and we can learn how to undo it.

Some Recent News on the Meds and Therapy Conundum

The New York Times reports that a large, multicenter study by Dr. Charles Nemeroff, then a professor of psychiatry at Emory and now at the University of Miami, found that for depressed adults without a history of abuse, there was a clear ranking order of treatment efficacy: Combined psychotherapy (using a form of cognitive behavior therapy) and an antidepressant (in this case, Serzone) was superior to either treatment alone. But for those who had a history of childhood trauma, the results were strikingly different: 48 percent of these patients achieved remission with psychotherapy alone, but only 33 percent of these patients responded to an antidepressant alone. The combination of psychotherapy and a drug was not significantly better than psychotherapy alone.

So what’s a depressed person supposed to do?

I don’t know, really.

We’re in a pickle, aren’t we?

Maybe there’ll be a soon-to-be discovered test that can guide us on precisely what to do. But for now, many of us will stay-the-course and, for better or worse, stick to the “plop, plop, fizz, fix”.

I see myself somewhere in the middle of all this. I’ve never been hospitalized or tried to commit suicide. But I have known depression’s scorching winds, gales that have torn the flesh from my body. I will never forget this pain. It’s scarred me. And I never want to return to it.

If you’re thinking of discontinuing your meds, here’s a great article on how to do it safely.

I welcome your comments about your depression journey with or without medicaton.

Copyright, 2017

by Daniel T. Lukasik

A Simple Solution to Depression? It Doesn’t Exist

Depression blogger, Therese Borchard writes about her recent visit to a holistic health fair and concludes that while holistic doctors and naturopaths offer valuable advice and treatment, it’s only part of a very complicated puzzle of what works for each individual.  Read the Blog

7 Thoughts From a Chronically Unhappy Person

From The New York Times, Diana Spechler writes, “My depression habits include avoiding pain and courting diversion.  During every bout of depression, I grasp – at yoga, therapy, medication, romance – and hope that my tiny firefly of pleasure won’t wriggle from the cup of my palms.”  Read the News

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