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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

Can You Stop Depression from Damaging Your Brain?

Can You Stop Depression from Damaging Your Brain?

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in America, according to the latest mental health statistics.[1] Approximately 17.3 million adults have had at least one major depressive episode.

In this article, we will take a deep look into depression, what a depression brain is like, and how to prevent the damage from depression.

What is Depression?

In order to tap into treatment options for depression, we must first examine what defines this disorder.

Apart from differing scientific and medical jargon, depression – also known as Major Depressive Disorder – is best categorized as a serious mood disorder.

While it is common, it is anything but innocent. The symptoms of depression have serious effects on daily living, and leave the afflicted person with an inability to carry out normal tasks, such as working, interacting with friends and family, and sleeping.

Depression itself is an umbrella term for a list of specific types of depression, such as Postpartum Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (which leads into serious symptoms of depression), Bipolar Disorder, and Psychotic Depression (which is depression with symptoms of psychosis), just to name a few.[2]

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While everyone experiences moments of depression in their life, being clinically diagnosed with depression is usually done with the aid of medical help. This diagnosis typically relies on a baseline of depression symptoms that have been present for at least two weeks.

Symptoms of Depression

Because depression is categorized as a serious mood disorder, most symptoms will begin with a person’s behavior. A person may feel persistent sadness that simply won’t go away, or they may experience a loss of interest in activities that they once enjoyed, like gardening, traveling, or working out.

Other symptoms, although not a complete list, may persist:

  • Feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
  • Anxiety
  • Angry outbursts, followed by a complete mood change (from happy to sad in very quick shifts)
  • Struggles with insomnia or significant changes in sleep schedule
  • Inability and lack of desire to get out of bed in the morning
  • Significant decrease in personal hygiene, nutrition, and maintenance of their home or space
  • Decreased interactions with friends, family, or colleagues
  • Lack of energy and physical weakness, apathy, or pains and aches
  • Trouble concentrating on specific tasks or making decisions
  • Frequent thoughts about death, or even suicidal plans, thoughts, or attempts
  • Back pain and headaches

While this list is not complete or exhaustive to a person’s struggle with depression, it does provide a general picture of some of the common symptoms.[3])

Causes of Depression

Mental health disorders still very much pose a mystery to medical professionals and science, in general. While depression is treated in a variety of ways (medicine, therapy, alternative healing, etc.), professionals are still learning more about this disorder and how it affects people of different genders, ages, and backgrounds.

However, a variety of factors are known to be possible contributors to depression, such as:

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  • Hormones – in cases of giving birth or going through menopause, women’s hormones quickly change, which can trigger depression or similar symptoms
  • Genes – while not everyone gets depression from inherited traits, it is a factor, and research has seen a correlation between depression in families that is carried through generations
  • Brain chemistry – one of the key factors in understanding cause of depression is brain chemistry, specifically neurotransmitters that work with the neuro-circuits in the brain to balance mood stability. If these neurotransmitters are not working properly, it could lead to depression or similar symptoms

We already mentioned brain chemistry, and how it plays an integral part in understanding how your brain works in relation to mood stability. Neurotransmitters are your body’s chemical messengers. They transmit these messages between neurons for a plethora of reasons – cognitive function, organ function, dopamine release, etc.[4]

In terms of relating this to depression, however, those transmitters also regulate mood stability, and if they’re not relaying messages correctly or connecting to the brain circuitry in normal, functioning ways, we see a correlation between that “misfiring” and mental illness.

To paint a picture, imagine your brain split in half, the two lobes or hemispheres perfectly separated from each other.

Now, imagine the mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters like tiny little ping-pong balls that bounce from one hemisphere of the brain to the other, relaying messages that connect the brain as a whole. This is what we normally see in a healthy functioning brain.

However, if there is a change in this chemistry, and the ping-pong balls are not crossing and relaying as they should, that change creates a shift in your brain circuitry that may cause depression or similar symptoms.

Because our brain is an extremely complex and intricate organ which scientists are still studying and learning about, it wouldn’t be complete to say that only chemical imbalances cause depression.

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In fact, recent Harvard research suggests that a slew of factors are involved in creating a correlation between depression and your brain function. These are inclusive of the neurotransmitters we described above, but they also include your way of life, medication, stress levels, and even genetic contributions or ways in which you were brought up.[5]

Because depression is a mood disorder, we have to look at our behavior, and how it is influenced by our brain chemistry.

Behavior is shaped by our temperament, and much of that comes from our genetics. We are predisposed to act in certain social situations in ways that tie us to our family chain.

How we react to life circumstances or other people is very much a reflection of what we picked up from our parents, guardians, friends, or social upbringing. From this, we may make different choices in life, for better or worse, depending on these genetics.

Similarly, our view of the world and our relation to it also have a hand in how depression may form. We create our world view early on in life, and while it is influenced by our family and life events, it’s also very much our own.

If you’ve experienced loss or disappointment, you’re likely to fall back on your world view to cope with it and allow it to protect you. As an example, you may close yourself off from new relationships because you’ve endured heartbreak and don’t believe that you’re worthy of real love; or, you come from an upbringing that wasn’t emotionally available, so you don’t create habit patterns or behaviors that show you how to handle emotion in a healthy way.

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All of these scenarios create behavior. In turn, that behavior creates habit patterns, that in turn, create your daily life and your interaction with it.

While chemical imbalances can have a direct role in manifesting depressive episodes, we have to be aware that our own, inherent behavioral traits are just as powerful contributors.

Medications to re-balance any chemical disruptions in the brain are a proactive tool against depression. These can be explained and provided to you by a medical health professional.

When it comes to our behavior, however, and how we deal with stress, trauma, loss, medical problems, and the like – all of which are triggers for depression – we can implement new habits[6] that can decrease any damage to our state of body and mind, such as:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga or any body-conscious movement or workout
  • Journaling about life events or problems we encounter on a daily basis
  • Therapy or group-sharing
  • Acupuncture, Reiki, or any alternative-healing modality
  • Diet and nutrition rich in foods that cleanse and empower (rather than numb and overpack the gut)
  • Hiking, running, biking, or any cardio-increasing activity
  • Spending time with others who support you

These are habits and tools that you can implement on your own, as well as with a professional. Remember to always consult with your doctor before starting any new regiment.

The Bottom Line

Depression is a disorder that affects our mood. While research has uncovered that depression may be linked to chemical imbalances in the brain, it also suggests that our behavior and inherent genetic traits are strongly connected to how depression manifests.

How you deal with the many ups and downs of daily life are strong indicators of where you may want to make changes, whether medicinal or alternative, to decrease your chances of depression and its damage, and embrace a life of health and well-being.

Featured photo credit: AJ Garcia via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] National Institute of Mental Health: Major Depression
[2] National Institute of Mental Health: Depression
[3] Mayo Clinic: Depression (Major Depressive Disorder
[4] Queensland Brain Institute: What are Neurotransmitters
[5] Harvard Health: What Causes Depression?
[6] Help Guide: Coping with Depression

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Aleksandra Slijepcevic

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Published on April 9, 2021

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

Mindfulness has become a popular buzzword in the health and wellness industry. However, few people truly understand what it is. My aim here is to teach you what mindfulness is and how it helps your mental wellness. By the end of this article, you will understand the meaning and benefits of mindfulness. Additionally, you will develop the ability to integrate mindfulness into your daily life.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is approximately 2500-years-old with deep roots in the Eastern world as a spiritual, ethical, and philosophical practice. These roots are intimately connected to the Buddhist practice of vipassana meditation.[1]

Mindfulness continues to be practiced as a cultural and spiritual tradition in many parts of the world. For Buddhists, it offers an ethical and moral code of conduct. For many, mindfulness is more than a practice—it is a way of life.[2]

However, mindfulness has evolved in the Western world and has become a non-religious practice for wellbeing. The evolution began around 1979 when Jon-Kabat Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).[3] Since then, mindfulness has emerged in the health and wellness industry and continues to evolve.

It is important to recognize the distinctions between mindfulness as a clinical practice and mindfulness as a cultural practice. The focus of this article is on the clinical model of mindfulness developed in the West.

Many researchers have integrated aspects of Buddhism and mindfulness into clinical psychiatry and psychology. Buddhism has helped to inform many mental health theories and therapies. However, the ethical and moral codes of conduct that drive Buddhist practices are no longer integrated into the mindfulness practices most-often taught in the Western world.[4] Therefore, Western mindfulness is often a non-spiritual practice for mental wellness.

Mindfulness aims to cultivate present moment awareness both within the body and the environment.[5] However, awareness is only the first element. Non-judgmental acceptance of the present moment is essential for true mindfulness to occur. Thoughts and feelings are explored without an emphasis on right, wrong, past, or future.

The only necessary condition for mindfulness to occur is non-judgmental acceptance and awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. It does not need to be complex even though structured programs exist.

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How Mindfulness Helps Your Mental Wellness

Along with MBSR, other models have been developed and adapted for use by clinical counselors, psychologists, and therapists. These include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).[6]

Structured models of mindfulness allow researchers to study its benefits. Research has uncovered an abundance of benefits including mental, physical, cognitive, and spiritual. The following is not a comprehensive list of all its benefits, but it will begin to uncover how mindfulness helps mental wellness.

Benefits on Your Mental Health

Practicing mindfulness can have positive impacts on mental health. It has been positively associated with desirable traits, such as:

  • Autonomy
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Competence
  • Empathy
  • Optimism

Mindfulness helps to improve self-esteem, increase life satisfaction and enhance self-compassion. It is associated with pleasant emotions and mood. Overall, people who practice this appear to be happier and experience more joy in life. Not only does it increase happiness but it may also ward off negativity.

Mindfulness helps individuals to let go of negative thoughts and regulate emotions. For example, it may decrease fear, stress, worry, anger, and anxiety. It also helps to reduce rumination, which is a repetition of negative thoughts in the mind.

MBSR was originally designed to treat chronic pain. It has since evolved to include the treatment of anxiety and depression. Clinical studies have shown that MBSR is linked with:

  • Reduced chronic pain and improved quality of life
  • Decreased risk of relapse in depression
  • Reduced negative thinking in anxiety disorders
  • Prevention of major depressive disorders
  • Reducing substance-use frequency and cravings

However, more research is needed before these clinical studies can be generalized to the public. Nevertheless, there is promising evidence to suggest MBSR may be beneficial for mental health.[7]

Benefits on Your Cognitive Health

Mindfulness has many important benefits for cognitive health as well. In a study of college students, mindfulness increased performance in attention and persistence. Another study found that individuals who practice it have increased cognitive flexibility. A brain scan found increased thickness in areas of the brain related to attention, interception, and sensory processing.[8]

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To explain this another way, practicing mindfulness can improve the ability to shift from one task to the next, increase attention span and increase awareness of bodily sensations and the environment. Therefore, it has the potential to literally change your brain for the better.

Harvard researchers are also interested in studies of the brain and mindfulness. One researcher studied how brain changes are sustained even when individuals are not engaged in mindfulness. Their research suggests that its benefits extend beyond the moments of mindfulness.[9]

Another study found that the benefits of mindfulness training lasted up to five years. In this particular case, individuals participating in mindfulness activities showed increased attention-span. Mindfulness has also been shown to increase problem-solving and decrease mind wandering.[10]

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways. However, most practices include these elements:

  • An object to focus awareness on (breath, body, thoughts, sounds)
  • Awareness of the present moment
  • Openness to experience whatever comes up
  • Acceptance that the mind will wander
  • The intention to return awareness to the object of focus whenever the mind wanders

A practice that encompasses these elements is typically called mindfulness meditation. Most mindfulness meditations will be practiced between 5 to 50 minutes, per day.[11]

There is truly no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. Most mindfulness meditations are done seated with an object of focus related to the breath, body, thoughts, emotions, or sounds. However, daily activities such as walking or eating can be practiced as a form of mindfulness meditation, as long as the aforementioned elements are in place.

Four Mindfulness Meditations and Their Benefits

Not all forms of mindfulness are created equal. Each practice has unique goals, structure, and benefits. The following four mindfulness meditations are linked with improved mental wellness related to vitality, happiness, and attention.

The results come from a study designed to explore the benefits of these four practices. All of these stem from traditional Buddhist practices.[12]

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1. Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness is a form of meditation that focuses on sending love and compassion to others. It may begin with kindness for the self and extend outward towards close family and friends, communities, nations, and the world. Loving-kindness may even involve sending love and compassion towards enemies.

The study found that eight-weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of closeness to others. However, it did not reduce negative feelings towards enemies. Additionally, one week of loving-kindness mixed with compassion training increased the amount of positive feelings participants experienced.[13]

2. Breathing Meditation

Breathing meditation is a practice where the focus remains on the breath. Whenever the mind begins to wander, the attention is brought back to the breath.

In many different mindfulness and yoga practices, specific breathing (pranayama) practices are taught. However, for beginners, simple diaphragmatic breathing that focuses on each inhale and exhale is sufficient.

The effects of breathing meditation relate to attention. Breathing meditation is linked to changes in the way information is processed. Buddhist monks who practiced breathing meditation were able to process a greater amount of information than monks who practiced compassion meditation.

3. Body Scan Meditation

A body scan is as simple as it sounds. Attention is brought to each part of the body. Participants can choose to start from the top of the head or the bottom of the feet. It can be helpful to imagine a warmth or a color spreading from one body part to the next as each part begins to relax.

When body scan and breathing are combined, there are many benefits. Interoceptive sensitivity is the mind’s ability to focus on bodily cues. It is strengthened by body scanning. Body scanning also helps with attention and focus.[14]

4. Observing Thoughts Meditation

In observing thoughts meditation, the focus is on the thoughts. This is an opportunity to practice non-judgmental observation. It is also a practice of non-attachment.

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Within the study, participants practiced structured observation of thoughts. First, they brought their attention to their thoughts and labeled them within several categories: past, present, future, self, or others. Then, they practiced observing their thoughts without an emotional reaction.[15]

The benefits of this practice were robust. First, participants showed great improvement in the ability to observe their thoughts without judgment. Second, the practice greatly reduced rumination. As a result, participants had fewer emotional reactions to their thoughts and developed greater self-awareness around their thinking patterns.

In summary, there are many different ways to practice mindfulness meditation. The choice may be determined by the benefits each practice offers. For example, body scanning can increase bodily awareness. Thought-observation can increase self-awareness and decrease rumination. Regardless, every practice may increase positivity, energy, and focus.[16]

Considerations Before You Begin Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is still a relatively new concept in clinical research. Critics worry that its benefits have been overstated. There is also concern that the Western world has changed it into something most Buddhists would not recognize.[17]

Mindfulness is a state of mind that builds self-awareness. As a result, it may force individuals to face difficult emotions, memories, and thoughts. In a study of long-term, intense mindfulness practices, 60% of participants reported at least one negative outcome. Some cases are related to depression, anxiety, and psychosis.[18]

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellness. Mindfulness offering promising results but there are also risks involved. Working with a therapist may be a great way to start a mindfulness practice while monitoring for risk.

Final Thoughts

Mindfulness is a powerful practice that has deep roots in Buddhism. It is a practice of present-moment awareness, acceptance of the present moment, and non-judgment of thoughts, emotions, or circumstances.

It has many benefits that may increase mental wellness. However, there are also some risks to consider. Overall, you should consider your unique profile before beginning a practice or consider working with a therapist at the start.

More About Practicing Mindfulness

Featured photo credit: Simon Migaj via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[2] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[3] Greater Good Magazine: What is Mindfulness?
[4] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[5] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[6] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[7] NCBI: Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology
[8] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[9] The Harvard Gazette: When Science Meets Mindfulness
[10] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[11] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[12] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[13] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[14] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[15] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[16] Greater Good Magazine: How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation
[17] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?
[18] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?

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