Depression has become a global epidemic, and the outlook for the future only gets worse. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, depression will be the second-leading killer only surpassed by heart disease.
Some people still question whether depression is “real.” It’s real. It kills. It almost killed me.
What Depression Looks Like In Your Brain
Science has proven beyond any doubt, that depression is a real condition with physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. While depression isn’t clearly understood, it’s clear that it’s not as simple as a chemical imbalance in your brain that can be corrected by a pill.
Depression is an umbrella term for various conditions, behaviors, and symptoms with a basis in multiple factors, including thought patterns, genetics, neurochemicals, childhood and life experiences, social support, and stress. (Read more: What Depression Looks like In Your Brain) In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that depression is not a disease itself, but a symptom, an epigenetic syndrome, of inflammation in the body due to other causes.
The truth is that we don’t really know what causes depression, how it affects the brain, or what’s a cause and a symptom even. What we do know is that, at the most basic level, depression is the routine activation of certain brain circuits, which we all have, in specific patterns that result in depressive symptoms in that person. Because of neuroplasticity, the brain strengthens neural pathways used more often. So, circumstances, thoughts, or feelings can be the stimulus that starts a brain spiraling down into a self-reinforcing pattern of depression.
A brain can get stuck in a depressive loop. In a sense then, depression is a bad habit of your brain – which gets regular support from mental and behavioral bad habits. The good news is that it can get unstuck by breaking habits and interrupting brain patterns. You do this by repetitively pausing, stepping outside of your usual ways of acting and thinking, gaining perspective, and deliberately moving into a space of conscious choice, possibility, and freedom.
Five Ways To Depression-Proof Your Brain
In his book Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., posits that your brain has built-in natural antidepressant tendencies which you can access and cultivate. They can be harnessed to keep a brain from becoming depressed, prevent relapse, or to uncover more happiness in life. Understanding how depression works in your brain and how your bad habits contribute to keeping you stuck in a negative brain loop are essential to overcoming depression naturally.
According to Goldstein, you have five built-in antidepressants.
Goldstein defines mindfulness as “intentionally paying attention to the here and now while putting aside our programmed biases.” He writes:
We know that negative self-judgments are significant cues for the depressive loop. The brain’s strategy to see the depressive loop as a problem and attempt to fix it by rehashing past events or rehearsing future ones only digs us deeper into the loop. …Try worrying about yourself while being fully present to the flavor of your tea. It doesn’t work.
Studies have shown rumination, uncontrollable over-thinking about past events, to be associated with depression, anxiety, and maladaptive behaviors. According to research, mindfulness has numerous mental health benefits, including increased well-being and reduced rumination, emotional reactivity, depression, and anxiety.
Through neuroplasticity, mindfulness alters the brain’s form and function to activate “present-moment pathways” instead of the parts of the brain associated with the executive control network, which recognizes negative emotion and thinks about it – the rumination loop.
Research has proven that self-compassion activates positive brain states counter to the depressive cycle and calm the amygdala, your brain’s emotional fear center. Science shows that self-compassion has numerous mental health benefits, ranging from fewer depressive and more optimistic thoughts, overall greater happiness and life satisfaction to greater social and emotional skills and improvements in physical health. Studies have determined that self-compassion increases resilience and is a major determining factor in whether life events become setbacks from which you don’t recover or stepping stones on a forward path.
Self-compassion is a skill that can be learned and used as a natural antidepressant to keep your brain happy and healthy.
Depression is a self-absorbed experience of disconnection where we can’t get away from ourselves. Purpose is a 180-degree shift. It’s about getting outside yourself and discovering what you have to contribute to the world. You begin to understand that you’re not an island and that your actions have ripple effects.
In the article “Your life’s purpose. Why finding your passion is essential to maintaining brain health.“, Dr. Sarah Mckay defines purpose as: “The psychological tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behaviour.” She explains that purpose in life is linked to many positive health outcomes including:
- better mental health
- less depression
- personal growth, self-acceptance
- lower risk of Alzheimer’s
- better sleep
In his book, Goldstein refers to the well-known play researcher, Brian Sutton-Smith as saying “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.” Play means having novel, stimulating things with which to interact in our environments and people with which to enjoy them.
The article “The Importance Of Play For Adults” quotes psychiatrist Stuart Brown MD and author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul as referring to play as a “purposeless, fun and pleasurable state of being which focuses on the experience, not on accomplishing a goal.” Exactly what constitutes play is going to be different for everybody. For example, it could be art, books, movies, music, comedy, sports, flirting, daydreaming, traveling, or socializing.
Play is essential to a child’s developing brain, but surprisingly, play is just as necessary for adults’ well-being. Playful novelty keeps your brain stimulated, engaged, and rested and fosters flexibility, creativity, connection, and positive emotions. Research shows that lack of toys and playmates increases depressive and anxiety symptoms in both kids and adults.
Goldstein defines mastery as “learning to get better and better” and “a feeling of personal control.” He means control over yourself, not situations. Mastery is about building your internal power, not external.
To create a sense of mastery requires having an open mind, being willing to learn, and accepting and forgiving of your mistakes. It’s adopting an approach focused more on improving than performing. It’s about finding value in the process instead of placing importance on the outcome.
Adopting a learning mindset helps you to be more creative in overcoming obstacles which, ultimately, will allow you to achieve more and have more fun along the way. It helps you to form a sense of mastery and sets you up for success.