How To Get A Depression Resistant Brain

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.

Mindfulness

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.

Self-Compassion

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.

Purpose

Having a purpose is about finding meaning in life rather than just finding happiness. Goldstein writes:

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
  • happiness
  • satisfaction
  • personal growth, self-acceptance
  • lower risk of Alzheimer’s
  • better sleep
  • longevity

Play

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.

Mastery 

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.

12 Comments

  1. What an interesting read Debbie…I love the idea that the brain can cultivate more of its natural in-built anti -epression tendencies.

    • I do too, Elle. I wish more people knew that they could develop their own brain’s natural wellness tendencies. Makes all the difference.

  2. Sandra Pawula Reply

    The section on play really spoke to me, Debbie. Play is not my natural tendency! I appreciate learning about its value.

  3. Love this Changing your habits changes your brain. and also change your words works big time too. Think play also creates a big shift as so many of us forget to play xx

  4. Thank you Debbie, I think play is so important but I struggle to find something that I would like to do when feeling so low. I look forward to your emails and promise myself that I will start working on myself more when I read them. I seem to be stuck and feel I will never get better. I am 56 and have had depression and anxiety all my life, as far back as I can remember. I just want to feel normal, but I think I will always be like this. Is it possible that I can feel better one day xx

    • Julie,

      Thanks for your message. I would encourage you to set small goals to do one thing a day to help your mental health. It might be some play, exercise, meditation, working with your thoughts, going to a counselor, sitting in the sunshine….whatever you feel like that day. The activity itself helps you and then it gives you a dopamine boost to know that you accomplished something. When you feel capable of it, why not Shoot for two or three things a day. I always say mental health is a lifestyle. It all boils down to little everyday habits. All the best to you! 🙂

  5. Love this. I shared it on my Facebook page therapy7! These are the greatest insights!!!!! I promote neuro “therapy” in my practice and my clients really appreciate these easy to understand facts and learnable skills

    • David,

      Thank you for your kind words and for sharing the article. Are you familiar with Jeffrey Schwartz'”4 Rs” thought reframing practice? It’s scientifically proven to change the brain and works especially with OCD patients. (Lots of info on here about it.) Anyhow, he says the first necessary step is understanding what is happening in your brain – the neurology of things. Sounds like you’re on the right track. 🙂

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