Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Science of Depression

We're getting all technical today and looking at the science behind depression. When I was first diagnosed I just couldn't understand how I felt or how it was in fact an illness. I heard people talk about mood, personality, feelings but not illness when it came to depression. I felt ill, in pain, confused, possessed almost by something else and as if I was shutting down and deteriorating. I felt like my intelligence, balance, memory, speech, emotions and health were all draining away and it was terrifying. I started my anti-depressants but these take some time to kick in and at first made me feel worse and gave me a lot of side effects. 

I was no closer to understanding depression after watching vlogs, documentaries or reading comments on forums. So I looked at the science and it made so much sense to me. It was an illness and I was a 'normal' depressed person feeling the effects that could be corrected and healed. Here's what I found out and it really comforted me to know:

In the brain there are four chemicals that make us feel happy and these are...

  • serotonin- high levels for happiness and low levels for sadness
  • dopamine- the striving emotion that makes you feel good
  • oxytocin- the cuddle hormone triggered by social bonding
  • endorphins- mask pain and discomfort so you push on
These chemicals play a huge role in controlling our mood. Whether they are high, low or being blocked from reaching the receptors in your brain, they make a big difference to how you feel emotionally, mentally and physically.

Brain connections and growth can be affected and the area in the brain known as the hippocampus, the part that controls your emotions and memory, gets smaller the longer you have depression and deteriorates. BUT it can be stimulated to grow new neurons, so it won't be gone forever. 

You might remember in another blog post I talked about feeling as though there was an electrical storm in my brain and it was as though I could physically feel the connections and changes going on up there. Well this was actually happening. I wasn't imagining it or just suffering from headaches. At first it felt as though I needed to get to the hospital before my brain shut down and this heightened my anxiety. I thought I was having some sort of brain trauma that needed emergency medical attention. It was so painful and intense but after knowing this it made sense and made me calmer that I wasn't physically ill or in any danger.

Scientists found that genetically you may be more prone to depression. You have a serotonin transport gene and receive two copies, one from each parent. These can be short or long. If your genes consist of two short copies you are most likely to become depressed, one short copy and one long you have a higher chance than average and people with two long copies are less likely to be depressed (this doesn't mean they won't be though as life events play a huge role). This explains why some families seem to have multiple members who suffer from depression, like one side of my family. Although we have all had something to trigger depression we may have been more prone to it to begin with. This helped me accept that I may be more likely to become depressed and with the events that have gone on I was actually doing really well to only just be affected now.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and links to behaviour, cognition, motivation, sleep, mood, attention, sexual gratification, memory and learning. It can affect our emotional responses and when it isn't transmitted properly our responses can become different to usual. For example laughing when you are angry or feeling sad but not showing emotion. Low dopamine will make you feel low in energy and demoted. This also explained why I felt so numb and blank as my emotions weren't being controlled properly. I had confusion, trouble sleeping and couldn't hold attention which all links to low dopamine.

The best example I found of this was an article saying someone who is low in dopamine may wish they were dead but wouldn't have the energy or motivation to end their life. Antidepressants give your dopamine an initial boost so then you may feel as though you wished you were dead and suddenly have more energy which can increase suicidal thoughts. Hence why anti-depressants can make you feel worse before you feel better. I found with my tablets that I didn't think about suicide but I did have worrying thoughts like hoping I would become hospitalised with an illness so I could rest or thinking about causing myself an injury for the same reason, but not death.

If you read the side effect labels of most antidepressants you will see how they link to low dopamine as they say that depression may cause; mood swings, insomnia, drowsiness, failure to orgasm, confusion, suicidal thoughts and so on.

Once you know how these chemical work and just how much they can affect you then you start to understand depression. When you hear that your brain activity and signals are almost rewired then you realise how much of an illness depression is. It is not a mood or state of mind like a lot of people would want you to believe, you cannot choose to have it or get over it. You are ill.

NOTE: After speaking to a friend of mine who studied psychology up to a doctorate level, she warned me of how she wouldn't recommend antidepressants to each depressed person, because each person is depressed due to different reasons. Antidepressants that work as SSRI's work by increasing serotonin levels, but they would therefore only work best for people who have lowered serotonin and this is not the only reason someone maybe depressed, neither is a chemical imbalance. Someone may be depressed due to another illness, chronic pain, a life event, social reasons, psychological reasons and so much more. 

The antidepressants that are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may make some people feel worse or suicidal rather than better. But for others may work well, each person is individual. The way to  tell whether someone is high or low in serotonin is with a blood test which many doctors do not use before prescribing an SSRI. It is worth speaking to your doctor if you find that your type of antidepressants don't agree with you or if you would like to find the root cause of your depression.

Much love,
Becky xx


Steven Williams said...

One of the reasons I have refused to take Antidepressants is the fear of suicidal thoughts. At some point I may change my mind, but I just have that fear and I'm not sure how I would react to that side effect.

Becky said...

I've heard very mixed reviews and reactions to antidepressants. I don't think I could have coped without them but something I know and that everyone I have talked to about them says is they make you worse before they make you better. Thats scary when you feel the way you do and know you can get worse to start. Each person needs to do whatever works for them though. Do you mind me asking what you use now as treatment? Don't feel like you need to answer that though, it's quite personal.
Much love,

Steven Williams said...

My only treatment is counseling. During the really dark times I wish it were more then just that, but that is where I'm at with my treatment right now.

Becky said...

Thank you for sharing. I hope it's helping you heal.
Much love

Steven Williams said...

Sharing has helped a lot. It took years to talk to anyone about it due to the stigma of depression and suicide.

Becky said...

The stigma that surrounds mental health is so damaging to people getting help and accepting mental illnesses :( if I could remove it from the world I would!