Depression - Caused By Our Thoughts Or A Chemical Imbalance?

Another question I get asked regularly in my resiliency coaching sessions, "Is depression caused by chemicals changing in our brain that subsequently change our thoughts, or do our thoughts change the chemicals in our brain?

Early thinking was that depression was down to a lack of mood regulation chemicals such as serotonin. The answer now is, it's not that simple. Current neuroscience suggests that while chemicals are involved in depression, it is far more complex than that.

According to the Harvard Medical School (2017), there are many possible causes of depression including not just faulty mood regulation by the brain, it is also genetic vulnerability, stressful events, medication complications, medical problems, and a few more lesser factors.

It's believed more so now that several of these forces interact to bring on depression. And, the combination that causes depression for one person may not be the same for another person. Genetics, like most things about us, is now known to play an even more important role than previously thought.

Because of advances in medical technology, it is now certain (for now at least) that three parts of the brain play a significant role in depression; the amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus.

  • The amygdala, a structure deep in the brain that's associated with some emotions, is activated when a person recalls emotionally charged memories such as a frightening situation causing us to go into fight-or-flight. Activity in the amygdala is much higher when a person is sad or clinically depressed. This increased activity continues even after recovery from depression. Controlling the fight-or-flight response through breathing can reduce this activity.

  • The thalamus receives most sensory information and relays it to the appropriate part of the brain. Some research suggests that bipolar disorder may result from problems in the thalamus, which helps link sensory input to pleasant and unpleasant feelings. Studies give hope to the possibility that we may be able to change signaling within the hypothalamus to slow down the aging process and increase longevity through what we eat.

  • The hippocampus is smaller in many depressed people. Stress may be a key factor here as it is believed that stress can suppress the production of new neurons in the hippocampus. Research shows that we do have the capacity to grow new neurons above and beyond what is generally produced in our hippocampus and to make them become mature and strong within weeks and months. The best way to generate new hippocampal neurons is to exercise, both physical and mental.

There is emerging research that shows forcing ourselves to think happy thoughts may also help. We have always known that if you are having more happy thoughts than sad ones you will probably be much happier. This however, is more about your mood and is still influenced by other complexities listed above.

While neuroscience and research is advancing along with the technology used to see inside our brains, we come back to what we have always known - breathing, exercise, a good diet, and controlling our thoughts can help reduce the risk of depression.

And of course, don't forget smiling.

Let's talk!

Are They Serious Or Simply Crying Wolf?

Do people who continually threaten to commit suicide actually mean it or are they just crying wolf to seek attention? Yes is the answer to both questions.

When people are hurting, there are many reasons why they want to tell you - You hurt me so now I will hurt you, I want to share my pain with you, I am hurting and I can't or don't know how to fix it, or I want to tell you how I feel and this is the only way I know how to do so.

When we are faced with this statement for the second, third or fourth time, we begin to wonder if the person is actually serious or maybe just seeking attention. The difficulty is that it is often too hard to tell.

We can, if we are properly trained, assess people for signs that they can't consciously feign - lethargy, reduced eye contact, crying genuine tears, and looking pale - but again none of us can truly tell if the person is serious. There simply is no way of genuinely knowing if someone is going to take their life.

I have read recommendations that you should ask them directly, "Are you thinking of killing yourself and have you made a plan yet?" That might work. However, I can tell you from personal experience that a lot of people will tell you that they aren't thinking of committing suicide and don't have a plan yet go on to do so. There are others who will say yes and tell you about their plan but haven't gone through with it, yet.

The difficulty we have as the recipient of this continual message "I don't know how I can keep going", "I just want to kill myself", or "One day I won't be here" is what to do about it. It often feels like you are being emotionally blackmailed and you are left wondering if you should take the comment seriously, get help for the person, or simply ignore it.

You can eliminate the latter, never ignore it. Ignoring something is the same as sanctioning it.

You should, however, always do the first two things. Always take the comment seriously and always try to get the person some professional help. On every occasion that they suggest they are thinking about killing themselves do these two things.

Here are the reasons; we know from research that people will often make many threats of suicide and do eventually go through with it, we also know that if we push people away who want to disclose what they are thinking may make them feel isolated and fragile, and we also know that by telling someone time and time again may actually convince ourselves to go through with the threats.

On every occasion that someone suggests that they are considering suicide, no matter how it is said or how it sounds, take it seriously. The person may well be crying wolf, but we never really know for certain.

So, what should you do if a person continually says that they are struggling and can't go on? Ask them to repeat what they just said. Why, because we want to confirm that what we heard was correct and to hold the person to account by getting them to repeat it.

If they confirm it, say "I take these comments very seriously and I want to help you as I would hate to think that you told me this and I did nothing about it". This shows that you care, reinforces your concern for their safety, and again holds the person to account.

There are many organisations now providing assistance to those who are struggling. Encourage the person to get help and tell them that you will be following up with them tomorrow to see how they are. You might want to go with them which will again show that you care and won't sit idly by when they make such a comment.

If you have genuine concerns, call the police. They will initially conduct a welfare check to ensure the person is okay, (very important if the person is phoning you), and have trained crisis intervention personnel who will 'shake them and take them'. They will come and talk to the person, remove them from harm, and get them professionally assessed.

By doing all of these things, you are helping the person by listening and offering support and you are also saying that I may not be the right person who can help you. You are also indirectly saying that I don't like it when you tell me these things over and over so I will also be telling you the same thing over and over.

There is no right or wrong answer as to whether someone is crying wolf or what to do about. The main question that should be foremost in our minds - 'What happens if I push them away and they go through with their threat'.

Yes, it is their choice, well sort of. However, you don't want to be left with feelings of guilt and regret and end in the same position as the person who spoke with you.

Let's talk!

Stop Daydreaming, Start Imagining!

Studies have shown that if we allow our brains to wander without any control on our part, such as daydreaming, there is a high likelihood that it will end in a negative thought and make us feel bad. Dreams can turn into nightmares, imaginary friends into monsters, and hallucinations into bad trips.

American psychologist, Dan Gilbert, conducted a worldwide study on the physical states of happiness using an app to ask three questions at random times across each day - "What are you doing?", "What are you thinking about?" and "How are you feeling?"

This study confirmed that happiness depends not simply on what we are doing at the time, it depends more on what we are 'thinking' about at the time that we are doing it. It is not the fact that we are doing what we enjoy that makes us happy, it has more to do with what we are thinking. You could be doing something that you enjoy but be thinking about work, as an example.

Essentially, we are controlling our state of mind dependent upon whether we are controlling our lucidity.

As an aside, the things that make us most happy are; having sex, talking with friends, engaged in sports, and playing or listening to music, in that order. What makes us the least happy, again in order are; work, being at home on the computer, or travelling on public transport. (For those who may be thinking that perhaps we could have sex on public transport to make it a much happier experience, NO. Try talking with someone or listening to music when you are next on public transport).

Our degree of happiness really does depend on controlling our thoughts, we are far less happy when we allow our brains to wander freely.

But, what if we believe that we enjoy daydreaming? The question to ask yourself is, are you daydreaming or are you imagining? The latter is the case and it can be good for us. Imagining, controlling your daydream towards an outcome, excites our brain, allows it to switch on our creativity, and motivates us.

Rather than randomly daydream, 'visualise' your goals, 'think' about ways to improve your life, 'escape' into your brain by imagining yourself achieving great things. Imagination has led to many great breakthroughs in our history.

Imagining works in a similar way to mindfulness, meditation, and the myriad of other mind control techniques with the exception that we don't want to calm our brain, we want to fully engage it.

Imagine it, don't dream it, it might just happen. And, you will be much happier no matter what the outcome.

Let's talk!

Our Young Need To Change?

Our young need to change. They need to get a grip, they need to harden up, they need to fall out of a tree and hurt themselves, they need to start doing things the way that we did. Wrong.

Reality check, if you recognised yourself as one of those people who say these things, it is you who needs to get a grip, harden up, and change. Perhaps not harden up, maybe soften up. Things are changing at an ever increasing pace, possibly at a pace never seen before. Our young, although more adept at embracing change, are struggling between the old and new.

Right now, some of you, those who tell us that kids need to harden up, will be saying - "But look at the terrible suicide statistics, what they are doing isn't working so they need to change" - wrong again.

Whilst suicide is high in our youth, it knows no age. It is simply that older people have learned to compartmentalise problems and work through the tough times thus putting distance between them and the problem.

We know that men and women think the same way in emotional situations because we all have the same emotions, neuroscience shows us this. Here's an example, when a man sees a newborn baby for the first time he looks at it and thinks to himself "Wow, that is so small, so beautiful, so vulnerable". When we think these things our face softens and Mum sees that and asks us if we would like to hold her baby at which time we plunge our hands deep into our pockets and say "No, I'm good". Or we might say "Yes", and sit rigidly holding the baby.

Why does this happen for most 'older' men, because our brains are hardwired to compartmentalise emotions. If we showed fear, an emotion, thousands of years ago we were killed. That set us on a path that our young can't understand today because our young have lost the ability to compartmentalise. Young men will hold that baby and in fact won't want to give the baby back.

Social media has isolated our young, advances in technology has made gaming technically challenging, our phones can now tell us what we need to know without the need to go to the library, and the way we teach our children has now changed. All of these things are new and exciting, and excitement produces dopamine, a reward chemical in our brains. So, we keep using technology to get that dopamine hit.

Because of this, our young have become isolated, introverted, and have lost some of the social skills we learned. They now feel totally alone and lack the social skills to ask for help or may feel afraid of being judged for not being able to cope.

What can we do to help our young, we can help them to understand that they are stuck between what is ingrained in all of us through evolution, compartmentalisation, and how the way we now do things has not only sped things up to make us feel that we have to react quickly but has also isolated us from each other.

What can we, as the older generation, do to help our young even more?

We can tell our young, girls and boys, that it is okay to cry, to feel bad and sad, to talk, that things aren't always going to go the way that they want them to, that they will have bad times as well as good, and that when things don't go well that it will take some time to get over it. Most of all, we can tell them not to listen to that voice inside of their head.

Importantly, we can also tell our young that we won't ever judge them, that they can tell us anything and that we will always be there for them, no matter what they tell us. We won't judge them, we won't scold them, we won't punish them, nor will we try to fix it for them.

Instead, we will hold them, tell them that we love them, and that we will always be there whenever they need us provided they tell us everything that they are thinking about. And, we will hug them like we have never hugged them before.

Let's talk!

Words Can Infect Our Minds

The words that we use can affect our mind, the evidence is overwhelming. I am not just talking about hurtful words that others use to bully us, nor am I talking about words that we use as labels. I am talking about the words that we use to describe our mind-condition.

It is common today to use words that describe our mental condition such as - stressed, distressed, depressed, and depression. While easy to describe the exact extent of the condition in a single word, are these words making it worse for us? Research indicates, yes.

If I was to tell you that you had cancer for example, what would your immediate thoughts be - "I am going to suffer", "I am going to have to go through terrible treatment", or would you think "I am going to die". Most of us would probably think the worse. However, cancer is being successfully treated these days and we know if caught early enough, recovery is almost guaranteed.

When it comes to our mind-health, the same can also be true. When many people read the word 'stress', they have a negative reaction and a 'stress' hormone is released making the person feel 'stressed'. The word stress, according to most articles, was introduced into mind-health from physics by Hans Selye, other articles say it came from engineering. Regardless of the origin, the word had little to do with mind-health.

What does the word 'depressed' actually mean then? It means to push down. What does the word 'depression' mean, a reduction in activity. Furthermore, we tell ourselves that we suffer from a 'mental' condition. Are we actually 'suffering', or are we 'feeling', or do we simply 'have' a condition? Is it 'mental', or is it to do with our 'mind'.

Now let's imagine putting these words together into a sentence - "I suffer from depression". What does your imagery now tell you?

Over history, our words have changed in the field of psychology, for better or for worse. In earlier times when we were 'stressed, we were actually 'tired', or 'troubled' and needed to rest. When we were 'depressed' we were 'low' or 'down'. 'Depression' was, and still is on occasion, termed 'melancholia' and then a 'mental breakdown'.

For me, I would much rather be melancholic than have the diagnosis of accumulated stress disorder. Don't even start me on the word 'disorder'.

Words do matter, changing the words that we use to describe our condition also matters as it can have a negative impact on our mind-health. Change the words to change your mind. Don't let words hold you back or take you down.

For some, a label is a stigma, a stigma that society repels.Change the words to change your mind, it works.

Let's talk!