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Anxiety and Depression Are Linked To Chemical Brain Imbalances

Anxiety and Depression Are Linked To Chemical Brain Imbalances

Revisiting old ideas and assumptions, without clinical data, seems to be as good a start as any for puzzled scientists when it comes to the subject of depression, anxiety, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Categorizing these medical conditions into addictions or disorders has also not helped in discovery and treatment. This is not to say that behavioral counseling and certain selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors known as SSRI, better known as anti-depressant drugs, do not help a percentage of the population. However, these methods are purely based on trial and error.

Over the past 15 years, there have been advances made by researchers in making more than just an effort in understanding the complexity of the brain and pinpointing areas of chemical balances.

Melanocortin

In the 1950s, it was discovered that the Nucleus Accumbens (NAc) was associated with the ability to feel pleasure. Robert C. Malenka, M.D., Ph.D., Pritzker Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, decided to take a closer look at this pleasure circuit since it seemed to be lacking in many diagnosed with depression. What he and his colleagues discovered was that it was not as much the specific region of the brain as much as the circuit activity that crossed through many complex regions.

Dr. Malenka has become a leading expert on the tiny gaps, called synapses, that occur during the transmission of nerve cell activity signals. The challenge is great, since there are trillions of synapses in the human brain. Recently, melanocortin circuit’s contribution to anhedonia-like behavior was found, and Dr. Malenka has high hopes in identifying a potentially new pathway of intervention in depression.[1] Melanocortin is a hormone that affects appetite in humans and further, turns off the brain’s ability to experience pleasure when an animal is stressed.

Monoamine Oxidase

Monoamine oxidase loss is the basis of another study investigated by Dr. Jeffrey Meyer,[2] Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Neurochemistry of Major Depression at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario. Monoamine oxidase (MAO-A) is an enzyme that breaks down chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Dr. Meyer discovered that there was a huge increase in MAO-A in patients with major depression diagnosis.[3] Knowing that this was a significant breakthrough in tracking monoamine transporters, his team created a model to follow, like a road map. This will take the guess work out of watching how chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, increase or decrease at different rates based upon transporter density. Researchers are now moving on to the next step in why MAO-A levels are raised in the brain and how to prevent it.

Acetylcholinesterase

Dr. Marina Picciotto, Ph.D., Professor of Neurobiology and Pharmacology at Yale University, and a team of researchers, have proven a biological cause for depression and anxiety, one which was previously dismissed in theory. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that was overshadowed by a signal-carrying chemical, called serotonin, as a leading cause of depression. While serotonin is important in the scheme of transmission, it is not nearly as powerful as acetylcholine.

An enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (AChE) has been found to lower acetylcholine levels.[4] The team discovered while studying mice that were treated with Prozac, that the AChE levels raised considerably, and even higher levels of acetylcholine were noted. This once questionable area of treatment became understandable, and showed why SSRI anti-depressants were valuable in alleviating depression.

The relationship between serotonin and acetylcholine signaling systems has not yet become clear, but by finding the cause of depression, treatments can now be studied from a different point of view.

Genes and Chemicals

It has already been discovered that certain genes make individuals more susceptible to low moods and how their treatment with anti-depressant drugs may differ from the next person. However, by majoring this hurdle, scientists can now focus on how specific regions of the brain changes in individuals.

For example, the hippocampus is smaller in some depressed people. Scientists’ hypothesis lies in the fact that new nerve cells have to be grown in order to combat the deteriorating cells that cause depression.[5] In animals, it was found that the use of anti-depressants spurred the growth and enhanced branching of nerve cells in the hippo-campus.

New neurons, a process called neurogenesis, that are stimulated by drugs specifically designed for strengthening nerve cell connections and improving the exchange of information between nerve circuits, could be the answer in treating depression. Scientists have pinpointed several types of neurotransmitters; these include Acetylcholine, Serotonin, Norepinephrine, Dopamine, Glutamate, and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). By studying each one of these transmitters and creating new chemicals that enhance their existence, depression, anxiety, and SAD could easily be treated.

Conclusion

It seems that researchers are onto something; something that can aid in treatment soon, others years down the road. While every one of these discoveries, including herbal remedies,[6] seem deserving of further testing, let us not forget that the brain is a very complex machine, and that it may take a collaboration of findings in order to reach an answer for different individuals.

Featured photo credit: Gratisography via pexels.com

Reference

[1] Brain and Behavior Research Foundation: Moving Beyond ‘Chemical Imbalance’ Theory of Depression
[2] Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: Dr. Jeffrey Meyer
[3] Psych Central: Depression’s Chemical Imbalance Explained
[4] Brain and Behavior Research Foundation: Potential Root Cause of Depression Discovered by NARSAD Grantee
[5] Harvard Health Publications: What Causes Depression?
[6] TN Nursery: Herb Plants

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Tammy Sons

Master Gardener, Horticulurist, Arborist

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Published on July 29, 2020

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

Have you been thinking of how you can be a more strategic leader during these uncertain times? Has the pandemic thrown a wrench at all your carefully laid out plans and initiatives?

You’re not alone. The truth is, we all want some stability in our careers and teams during this disruptive pandemic.

However, this now requires a bit more effort than before and making the leap from merely surviving to thriving means buckling down to some serious strategic thinking and maintaining a determined mindset.

Is There a Way to Thrive Despite These Disruptions?

Essentially – yes, although you need to be willing to put in the work. Every leader wants to develop strategic thinking skills so that they can enhance overall team performance and boost their company’s success, but what exactly does it mean to be strategic in the context of the times we live in?

If you happen to be in a leadership position in your organization right now, you are most probably navigating precarious waters given the disruptions caused by the pandemic. There’s a lot more pressure than before because your actions and decisions will have a much greater impact these days not just on you, but also to the people who are part of your team.

Companies often bring me in to coach executives on strategic thinking and planning. And while pre-pandemic I would usually start by highlighting the advantages of strategic thinking, nowadays, I always begin these Zoom coaching sessions by driving home the point that this pandemic has now made strategic thinking not just an option but an absolute must.

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Assessing and making plans through the lens of a good strategy might require significant work at first. Nevertheless, you can take comfort in the fact that the rewards will far outweigh the effort, as you’ll soon see after following the 8 strategic steps I have outlined below.

8 Steps to Strategic Thinking

As events unfold during these strange times, you’re bound to feel wrong-footed every now and then. Being a leader during this pandemic means preparing for more change not just for you, but for your whole team as well.

As states and cities go through a cycle of lockdowns and reopening, employees will experience the full gamut of human emotions in dizzying speed, and you will often be called on to provide insight and stability to your team and workplace.

Strategic thinking is all about anticipation and preparation. Rather than expending your energy merely helping your company put out fires and survive, you can put the time to better use by charting out a solid plan that can protect and help you and your company thrive.

Take the following steps to build solid initiatives and roll out successful projects:

Step 1: Step Back, Then Set the Scope

One of the things that leaders get wrong during their first attempt at strategic thinking is expecting that it is just another item on a checklist. The truth is, you need to take a good, long look at the bigger picture before anything else. This means decisively prioritizing and stepping away from tasks that can be delegated to others. Free up your schedule so you can focus on this crucial task at hand.

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Then, proceed with setting the scope and the strategic goals of the project or initiative you plan to build or execute. Ask yourself the bigger question of why you need to embark on a particular project and when would be the right time to do so.

You need to set a timeline as well, anywhere from 6 months to 5 years. Keep in mind that your projections will deteriorate the further out you go as you make longer-term plans.

For this reason, add extra resources, flexibility, and resilience if you have a longer timeline. You should also be making the goals less specific if you’re charting it out for the longer term.

Step 2: Make a List of Experts

Make and keep a list of credible people who can contribute solid insight and feedback to your initiative. This could range from key stakeholders to industry experts, mentors, and even colleagues who previously planned and rolled out similar projects.

Reach out to the people on this list regularly while you work through the steps to bring diverse insight into your planning process. This way, you will be able to approach any problem from every angle.

Bringing key stakeholders into this initial process will also display your willingness to listen and empathize with their issues. In return, this will build trust and potentially pave the way for smoother buy-in down the line.

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Step 3: Anticipate the Future

After identifying your goals and gathering feedback, it’s time to consider what the future would look like if everything goes as you intuitively anticipate. Then, lay out the kind and amount of resources (money, time, social capital) that might be needed to keep this anticipated future running.

Step 4: Brainstorm on Potential Internal and External Problems

Next, think of how the future would look if you encountered unexpected problems internal and external to the business activity that seriously jeopardize your expected vision of the future. Write out what kind of potential problems you might encounter, including low-probability ones.

Assess the likelihood that you will run into each problem. To gauge, multiply the likelihood by the number of resources needed to address the problem. Try to convert the resources into money if possible so that you can have a single unit of measurement.

Then, think of what steps you can take to address these internal and external problems before they even happen. Write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Lastly, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different possible problems and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

Step 5: Identify Potential Opportunities, Internal and External

Imagine how your expected plan would look if unexpected opportunities came up. Most of these will be external but consider internal ones as well. Then, gauge the likelihood of each scenario and the number of resources you would need to take advantage of each opportunity. Convert the resources into money if possible.

Then, think of what steps you can take in advance to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Finally, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different unexpected opportunities and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

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Step 6: Check for Cognitive Biases

Check for potential cognitive biases that are relevant to you personally or to the organization as a whole, and adjust the resources and plans to address such errors.[1] Make sure to at least check for loss aversion, status quo bias, confirmation bias, attentional bias, overconfidence, optimism bias, pessimism bias, and halo and horns effects.

Step 7: Account for Unknown Unknowns (Black Swans)

To have a more effective strategy, account for black swans as well. These are unknown unknowns -unpredictable events that have potentially severe consequences.

To account for these black swans, add 40 percent to the resources you anticipate. Also, consider ways to make your plans more flexible and secure than you intuitively feel is needed.

Step 8: Communicate and Take the Next Steps

Communicate the plan to your stakeholders, and give them a heads up about the additional resources needed. Then, take the next steps to address the unanticipated problems and take advantage of the opportunities you identified by improving your plans, as well as allocating and reserving resources.

Finally, take note that there will be cases when you’ll need to go back and forth these steps to make improvements, (a fix here, an improvement there) so be comfortable with revisiting your strategy and reaching out to your list of experts.

Conclusion

A great way to deal with feelings of uncertainty during this pandemic is to anticipate obstacles with a good plan – and a sure road to that is practicing strategic thinking.

In the coming months and years, you’ll need to continue navigating uncharted territory so that you can lead your team to safe waters. Regularly doing these 8 steps to strategic thinking will ensure that you can prepare for and adapt  to the coming changes with increasing clarity, perspective, and efficiency.[2]

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Featured photo credit: JESHOOTS.COM via unsplash.com

Reference

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