By Jimmy Warden
Dealing with depression is challenging. It is challenging because people who don’t have many depressive episodes or don’t experience them as intensely as others have a hard time understanding how it can deeply it can affect someone. This is why telling someone to just “snap out of it” is not such great advice. For those that do experience depression, they have a different experience of depression than others, so they can only empathize to a certain capacity. No one can truly understand your experience except for you, and at the end of the day, you could receive all of the greatest advice in the world, but if you don’t use it, it’s just advice, not wisdom. Only you can help you, but when you’re depressed, doing anything can feel like a challenge. There’s much more to depression than meets the eye.
Depression is a biochemical learned helplessness response to stress (Harper, 2018, p.10). This means that the person experiencing the stress freezes, and metaphorically (or literally) lays down in front of the stress because it has gotten to a point where laying down is the most liable option for protection. The stress has become so overbearing the person experiencing it has become helpless. It is both nature and nurture because we can inherit depressive traits from our parents if they are susceptible to experiencing depression, and the environment around us (people, places, and things around us at any given time) can also cue that experience. At the level of brain chemistry, a lack of neurotransmitter production (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) is the cause of depression.
The lack of dopamine is our lack of desire to do anything because dopamine is responsible for what we think of as motivation. The lack of serotonin is our lack of appreciation for anything that is happening in the present because serotonin allows us to have a here and now emotional experience. When there isn’t much serotonin being produced, we tend to feel pretty glum and have a glass half-empty (perhaps even more!) perspective on life. The lack of norepinephrine shows up as our lack of energy and ability to do anything due to that lack of energy. The lack of neurotransmitter production is what leads us into not enjoying things we usually would, engaging in false narratives and negative self-talk, and not having much energy to do anything. The trickiest part about all of this is the less we try to produce these neurotransmitters, the less likely it is that we’ll be able to get out of the depressive episode. The good news is, if we know our triggers, we will have a fighting chance against depression.
Due to its nature, depression can be triggered in multiple ways. First, there is the genetics piece to it. If someone has a family history of depression, they’re much more likely to experience depressive episodes and potentially experience them at a more destructive level than someone who does not have a family history of depression. They have it in their genes, in their blood, in their DNA. This, combined with environmental factors like work life, home life, society at large, and nature itself create potential levels of stress that could contribute to depression and depressive episodes. So do significant life events (deaths in the family, traumatic experiences, heartbreak, moving, etc.). This call creates what I like to call “Mount Depression”. If we are not willing to climb the mountain, we will not be able to see what’s on the otherside. And the longer we wait, the higher the mountain builds with all of the factors that contribute to it being created (genetics, dysfunction of neurotransmitters, the environment, and signifcant life events). We can think of the genetics as the base of the mountain and the other factors are what builds on top of the base to make the mountain larger and larger when we don’t try to fight back with changes in lifestyle. The most challenging part about making these changes is that we need energy to make them, in order to climb “Mount Depression”, and it is the depression itself depleting us of energy. This is why we must engage in thoughtful change if we really want to climb the mountain.
Before I get into the strategies about how to begin the climb of “Mount Depression”, I want to say that I am not a licensed psychologist or mental health clinician (yet), but I have received mental health services during several points in my life when I was experiencing depressive episodes, and I have done extensive reading about the brain, mental health, and personal development, so I do have a solid foundation of knowledge in these areas. However, if you are experiencing significant mental health challenges, please seek out help from a licensed professional because they can provide you with much more than I can in the following paragraphs. I for one have experienced tremendous benefits from seeing a mental health clinician, which is why I would recommend you go see one if you are experiencing some significant setbacks. A lot of the tips that I am going to share come directly from resources my mental health clinician has shared with me.
First, make sure you’re getting enough light exposure, specifically in the form of sunlight. My therapist suggests at least 30 minutes a day, if possible. If that does not seem possible, I would suggest investing in an “optic light”. The sun and “optic lights” help regulate our circadian rhythm so our body knows when it should be awake and alert, as well as when it should be relaxed and resting. Scientists and doctors have also stated that proper Vitamin D levels (which comes from sunlight, supplements, and food sources) correlate with proper brain functioning, which is a big reason why people experience seasonal depression in the winter time.
Second, make sure that you are getting exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes. It can be aerobic or anaerobic, but the most important piece of it is sustained for that length of time to allow for endorpin release in the body. If the exercise is not at an intensity level where you’re breathing hard or sweating, it decreases the chances of an endorphin release. Endorphins are help with depression (and other mental health challenges like anxiety) because endorphin release blocks pain receptors in the body and gives us a feeling of euphoria or accomplishment, both during and post workout. Think about the “runner’s high” that runners speak of or the analogy that Arnold Schwarzenegger makes about weightlifting in the documentary Pumping Iron. The experience that runners and Schwarzenegger speak of is the release of endorphins in the body. With exercise, it is important to eat well-balanced meals and to minimize processed sugars and processed foods as much as possible. Processed sugars and foods do not cooperate well with our minds and bodies because processed sugars and foods activate and increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which we only want activated at specific times of the day, in order to regulate body resources and our circadian rhythm.
Next, it’s a great idea to give some long thought about what it is that’s making you feel the way you are. Are you feeling like you’re not good enough? Are you feeling like no matter what you do it’s not enough? Do you feel unappreciated? Does it feel like your world around you is collapsing in on you? If any of these thoughts or similar thoughts pop up in your mind, investigate! This could be done with a psychologist or a mental health clinician, but it can also be accomplished through honest and genuine introspection. Perhaps, you’ll realize these thoughts are coming from a need to feel validated. Perhaps, they are coming from an expectation that you were supposed to receive more love than you were given or receive it in the manner in which you expected. Perhaps, you’ll realize it is not the world that it collapsing, but rather your perspective is what is collapsing. Whatever the reasons may be, it is important to try to peel back the layers of your onion, and yes, there may be some tears, but it will be worth your while because you’ll have a better understanding of yourself and how you interpret the world around you.
All in all, depression is an extremely difficult challenge to those who experience it. There’s an overarching feeling that nothing really matters and that taking action in life is useless. It is a learned helplessness that takes over because of genetics and environmental causes. It is not something that people can merely snap out of, it is something that needs to be worked through. If the work is not done the depression simply builds and becomes insurmountable. This is why it’s crucial to seek out necessary help for what is ailing you. Whether you need professional help (which there is no shame in receiving) or you simply need to make some lifestlye changes, it is crucial to do this before the battle doesn’t seem worth fighting. Just know, whatever you decide to do, you are not alone in your fight, and there are plenty of life warriors ready to stand by your side.