Nancy Sokol Green
What's Not Often Shared About Depression
Depression affects more than 21 million Americans annually.
It is the leading cause of disability in people ages 15-44.
Twenty-one percent of Americans will suffer from a mood disorder, such as depression, in their lifetime.
One in five Americans takes psychiatric drugs, with antidepressants being the most commonly prescribed.
Depression carries a high risk of suicide.
In 2009 (the last year for which statistics are available), suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. (Note that homicides rank 15th.)
According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 37,000 suicides and one million attempted suicides that year.
Those concerning facts certainly warrant looking at every possible cause of depression, right? Yet, there’s a reason most people have not considered. Namely, incomplete lower brain development may be linked to depression.
So, how is that possible?
Well, what if we’re driving off to work every day—where we have to write reports and answer to our boss whenever he demands an answer? What if, as soon as we get home, we interact with our spouse and kids, and then have to pay the bills and fix that broken toilet right after dinner, and a whole lot more–without ever realizing that we never completed our lower brain development during our first year of life? What if we have no clue that although we’re surely upright, we didn’t finish connecting key highways that give us some of the most fundamental, basic brain functions?
If so, then chances are we struggle with what often seems effortless to others. For example, we may try harder than our colleagues, yet still produce less. We may misinterpret what others say, so we think they’re judging us. We may find it taxing to process whatever we read or to follow what people are saying if there’s a lot of background noise. We may experience what seems like never-ending anxiety. The list goes on. No surprise that such a life then becomes a challenge to stay upbeat and positive.
But here’s where it gets worse. If our brain starts to sense that it won’t make a difference no matter how hard we try, then our brain actually starts to change—and not for the better.
In such case, we begin to experience what scientists have identified as “learned helplessness,” which has been documented through experiments that prove anyone’s brain can learn to be helpless.
For example, in one study, people were taken into a room where they heard a loud noise. These people were shown a panel with buttons and given the task of learning how to turn off the loud noise. However, no matter what button or pattern of buttons they pushed, the noise was unstoppable.
In the second part of the experiment, the same people were now asked to place their hand inside a shuttle box. The shuttle box was designed so that if a person put his or her hand to one side of it, there was an annoying, whooshing sound. However, if the person moved his or her hand to the opposite side, the noise stopped.
Yet, when this group put their hands in the shuttle box and heard the annoying noise, they just sat there. Their previous repeated failure to turn off the noise in the first experiment “taught” them to believe that they were helpless to turn off noise—even though the time, place, and task had changed.
Note that learned helplessness is not genetic. Rather, it’s caused by previous experiences that teach the brain a person’s efforts yield nothing positive and to then expect that same kind of negative outcome in future situations.
Hmm . . . that sure sounds similar to what happens to people trying to get through the day without basic brain functions in place. Simply, when lower brain development is incomplete, it doesn’t often matter how hard a person tries.
Yet, that experience of trying and trying without change ever coming about absolutely conflicts with what we’ve been told. How many times have we heard: If you try—and try again, you will succeed.
The only problem is . . . that’s a lie if we have incomplete lower brain development. Namely, all the effort in the world can’t change what isn’t neurologically in place. So, when we come up empty-handed, time and time again, what’s the probability we’ll remain positive and our brain won’t learn helplessness?
Of course, the brain is going to try to adapt in such situations. However, as it does so, the brain chemistry now changes. And ironically, it’s those changes that then make us even more vulnerable to be depressed.
So how does that happen? Well, since our incomplete lower brain development puts us in survival mode much of our daily life, and our brain has now “learned” helplessness, our body’s innate stress response is being activated all the time. That stress response then triggers a chemical reaction that affects our neurotransmitters . . . which then directly affects our mood.
For example, cortisol, which is part of this stress response, lowers dopamine production. Keep in mind that dopamine helps us experience pleasure.
This stress response also reduces serotonin, which just happens to be the most important neurotransmitter in regards to ensuring we’re in a positive, happy mood. But guess what? When serotonin drops, now norepinephrine levels additionally drop.
Yet, we need certain levels of norepinephrine to be present since one of its primary mechanisms is arousal. Therefore, if we don’t have enough norepinephrine, we may feel less alert and experience low energy—both symptoms that are often associated with feeling depressed. And if that weren’t enough, GABA, a neurotransmitter linked to anxiety, is also lowered.
When we understand how this stress response affects us chemically, suddenly, it makes a whole lot of sense as to why we’re not upbeat and optimistic! If that weren’t enough, this downward spiral continues. Turns out the more negative our mood and the longer such depression lasts, the more this stress response flips on and stays on.
When that happens, we’re now more vulnerable for gastrointestinal disorders, infections, heart disease, cancer, endocrine disorders and more.
Wow. That’s quite a price to pay for maybe just not finishing our lower brain development the first year of life.
Yet, there is good news (thank goodness!). If incomplete lower brain development is a variable or even the main cause of our depression, we can do something about that. That’s because it’s never too late to go back and develop those highways, at any age.
Then, once those neural connections are in place, and we have those basic brain functions—we can now experience life with an organized brain. That’s truly very different life than one where the brain is not working as intended.
So, here’s the question: How many people are suffering and feeling depressed . . . unnecessarily? In other words, depression may not have to be a lifetime sentence, and drugs may not be the only answer.
Not surprisingly, sometimes just knowing that there is a plausible explanation for why everything seems so difficult—along with knowing it’s possible to go back and finish that early development—is enough for some people to start to feel encouraged.
That’s why if we do feel depressed, we owe it to ourselves to, at least, take a lower brain assessment to explore whether this connection may be applicable to us. That’s why if we know someone who is depressed, we owe it to them to share this same lower brain assessment.
After all, we never know. A little knowledge may end up completely changing our own life . . . or changing the life of someone else.