Spotlight on Depression: Part 2

In the previous article we began, with the help of ‘The Depression Learning Pathway’, written by Roger Elliott and Mark Tyrell, sourced from the website http://www.clinical-depression.co.uk, to look at the causes of depression, and questioned the belief that depression is caused by chemical imbalances in the body.

This month we continue to examine the causes and physical effects that depression has on the body.

In addition to the reduction in chemical neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norephinephrine, the overproduction of stress hormones is also often cited as the cause of depression. However, whilst many people who are depressed do have high levels of stress hormones in their body this is arguably a symptom of the condition, rather than the cause.

There is much evidence to suggest that stress and depression are closely linked. In a study carried out by scientists at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia it was found that rats repeatedly exposed to the stress hormone corticosterone showed more depression-like behaviour and greater signs of anxiety. The study also indicated that the hormone affects males more than females. (If you want to find out more the full study appears in the December 2004 issue of Behavioral Neuroscience (Vol. 118, No. 6).

Dr Kalynchuk cites evidence that repeated stress in lab animals reduces neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells) in the hippocampus of the brain, leading to depressive symptoms. However she says “It’s not clear whether a decrease in neurogenesis can cause depression or is a by-product of depression. A direct link has not yet been made.”

Synergies of Human MindA fellow researcher, Minor, believes that the production of chronic stress hormones trips a neurological circuit breaker in the brain by causing receptors in the hippocampus and amygdala to block glucose intake, stopping these areas from experiencing neurotoxic overexcitement. This long-term coping response, he says, would drag down other responses and behaviours, causing what people experience as depression.

He says that a compensatory shift occurs as, when you are stressed you are anxious and fatigued, when you are anxious you produce a lot of energy, however when you are tired you have low levels of energy. He suggests that depression is a metabolic problem in the brain. If this were confirmed regimens that help the brain build new neurons, such as experiencing something different, ie the traditional change of scenery, along with fresh air, exercise and regular sleep may be useful in reversing the condition.

Tyrell and Elliott believe that when you ruminate or introspect in a negative way you become emotionally aroused, this causes the release of stress hormones. During that night, when you enter into dream sleep (REM) you become emotionally aroused again, because dreaming ‘flushes out’ the emotional arousal from your brain. This results in high levels of stress hormone in the bloodstream and feeling exhausted upon waking.

They also state that when you are stressed your brain works differently. You are more likely to resort to ‘all or nothing’ thinking which causes catastrophising, and makes it difficult for you to solve complex problems. This then creates more emotional arousal, or stress, you dream more, wake exhausted and so the loop continues.

This loop is what Tyrell and Elliott call ‘The Cycle of Depression’. By understanding this cycle they believe that it can be broken, thus beating depression for good.

This cycle of depression goes as follows:

  • You spend most of your sleep time over-dreaming in the REM state, this means you experience very little deep (recuperative Slow Wave) sleep. You produce excessive amounts of stress hormones which in turn lowers your immunity to infection.
  • This results in you experiencing exhaustion by morning. Your serotonin levels are reduced, which reduces your ability to sleep, your motivation is impaired and you experience fewer pleasant experiences as your ability to meet your basic needs, and maintain concentration, is impaired.
  • Excessive tiredness results in depressive thinking styles. You experience feelings of hopelessness and anxiety.
  • You then spend an excessive amount of time emotionally ruminating, having negative ‘All or Nothing’ thoughts, having a thought then feeling unpleasant (angry, anxious or helpless) after it. The emotional arousal leaves an uncompleted loop in the brain’s emotional system. Normally the emotion would be carried through to completion, by carrying out an action, but this sort of emotional arousal just creates the unpleasant feeling, it does nothing to complete the cycle.

Vision of Inner ThoughtsWhen you fall asleep without completing these emotionally arousing introspections the brain uses dreams to create scenarios to allow the loops to complete. When everything is working well the process of dreaming acts out, metaphorically, the situation that will allow the emotional loop to be completed and ‘flushed’ from the brain. Everything then remains balanced.

If you are experiencing depression you spend much more time ruminating and thinking introspectively. To counteract this you have to spend much more time dreaming to balance you out ready for the next day. Over-dreaming is hard work, and as dreaming is a state of arousal, stress hormones are released while you sleep. You do not get the restorative rest you need while you sleep and awake exhausted.

Often you awake early and although exhausted, you are unable to get back to sleep. This is one way the body may be attempting to restore balance, stopping you from over-dreaming and attempting to lift the depression. As the day goes on you often feel better as the hormones replenish themselves and balance is somewhat balanced, however temporarily.

By understanding the cycle of depression we can see that what are often cited as the causes of depression are more likely to be triggers. It is an understanding of the connection between depressive thinking styles, emotional arousal, dreaming and exhaustion that points to the real cause of this debilitating condition. By understanding the connection we can begin to understand the physical effects, why they happen and how to prevent them.

If you are experiencing depression I urge you to read in full ‘The Depression Learning Pathway’, available at  http://www.clinical-depression.co.uk and have a look at the diagram of ‘The Cycle of Depression’ on page 32.

Sarah Jackson

Advanced Hypnotherapy, Massage, Reiki & Beauty Therapist

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