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Coping With Depression

The Signs And Symptoms
of Depression
And Why It Is Painful

Everyone can feel sad and let down from time to time, Whether it is from a death of a loved one, a divorce, family or financial difficulties, job loss or just daily stressors, no ones life is always perfect.  However, the illness of depression is something very different. Depression can last for weeks or months. Without proper help, depression can linger for years. Even as circumstances change for the better, it is difficult to "snap out of it" as some might expect. Depressed individuals get locked into their feelings of despair, loneliness and hopelessness. How bad the depression is, is a question that only the individual experiencing it can answer. The disturbances in mood is purely subjective.

There are many signs of depression, which include:  feelings of helplessness, a loss of significant weight, feelings of fatigue, difficulty sleeping, lack of energy, loss of concentration, difficulty making decisions and possible thoughts of death or suicidal attempts.

So why is depression so painful? Imagine falling and breaking an arm or leg. It's painful. Physical sensations are patterns of activity in brain cells called neurons. Physical pain is produced by a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, a small piece of grey matter in the grove that divides the left and right hemispheres. The anterior cingulate cortex  registers pain conciously.

Emotional pain is created in the same manner as any other type of physical pain. However, conversely, the brain can produce pain that has no clear source. An example is someone who has lost a limb and continue to have physical feelings coming from their missing part. The pain is coming from the brain. The portion of the brain that was used to generate the feelings from the limb continue to send signals as if the limb is still attached.

Depression can be similar. It can be a learned or conditioned pain. The brain becomes familar with the feelings, and stops responding to even the most significant changes and circumstances. What needs to occur is to re-learn and  help the brain to respond differently by learning new positive thoughts. However, this process takes time to practice while finding new ways of thinking and living.

While discussing depression, we can not ignore the chemical makeup and the significance of neurotransmitters. Brain activity is brought on by the neurotransmitters that our brains produce for feelings of happiness. With depression, brain cells that produce feelings of happiness fail to produce or respond to the neurotransmitters. The area of the brain that is responsbile for emotional stability and pleasure is the temporal lobe on the left hand side,(for most people). The ability to feel stable and positive consistently despite ups and downs of everyday life are controlled by this area of the brain. Optimum activity  in the temporal lobes enhances mood stability, while increased or decreased activity in this part leads to fluctuating, inconsistent or unpredictable moods and behavior.

The brain is made up of modules that are areas responsible for different functions. The more modules are used the bigger they become. The more an individual can exercise that part of the brain with pleasurable behavior and experiences, as early as possible in life, the more the modules are stimulated, creating an increase in happiness. Since brain cells die off, without use and stimulation, for someone who has a history of turmoil and displeasure early in life, they could  experience more sadness and depression as they grow older.

One reason why depression has such a wide ranging affect on all body functions is in large part due to the portion of the brain called the limbic system. This sends and receives messages from the entire body. The emotional messages to and from the limbic system will affect all body functions.

Neurons are the basic untis of the nervous system. Each of the billions of neurons in the brain receives information from up to a thousand others, as electrical impulses. What neurons do is prioritize the inputs and adjust its output accordingly. When a neuron is stimulated, the nerve impulse, or electrical impulses will jump from one cell to another across the synapse. When the impulse reaches the end of the first cell, it will release neurotransmitters into the synapse. Some of the neurotransmitters will lock onto other cells while others will not and eventually be broken down by enzymes, or return to the cell they came from. The neurotransmitters that these cells release are what help create feelings of pleasure and happiness. But sometimes the neurotransmitter signals don't get through to other cells, or there may not be enough of the chemical for another cell to receive.

The neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation are;
Dopamine: This helps generate feelings of  happiness and pleasure. Too little dopamine  can cause depression, social withdrawal, poor concentration fatigue.
Serotonin: This has a significant effect on mood and anxiety. High levels of this chemical can produce serenity and optimisim. It helps stabalize sleep, appetite and sexual activity. Serotonin is also known as the "daytime" neurotransmitter, because it helps prepare the brain to be awake during daylight hours.
Melatonin: This is the "nighttime" neurotransmitter, that prepares the body to sleep during hours of darkness and causes the brain to dream. When the eye's no longer sense daylight, it prompts the pineal gland to transform serotonin into melatonin.
Noradenaline: This chemical helps regulate energy and mood and helps the body to respond to stress. This works along side with adrenaline, helping to stimulate the heart. When the body goes into the "fight or flight" mode, breathing increases as does perspiration to cool the body.

Treating depression involves an approach and intervention that includes many different things  With quality coordination of care and a combination of many different factors and approaches, depression is treatable. Never rely on therapy or medication alone. A combination of both treatments are often necessary. A qualified therapist experienced treating depression can help to determine if medication is necessary. If it is, a psychiatrist can help evaluate for the proper medication and dosage that willl work best.  However, finding the right medication and dosage is often by trial and error. No two individuals respond exactly the same to the same medication and dose.

Last but not least, a supportive social and family network is vital for stability. Without a network of other who care and love, the chances for improvement decrease. Despite feelings of loneliness and despair, it is always important to reach out to others who can be supportive, understanding and loving. If it's  not a family member, turn to co-workers, friends or professionals who can help.

John Illman, "Use Your Brain to Beat Depression", 2004, Octopus Publishing
Joe Dispenza, "Evolve Your Brain", 2007, Health Communications, Inc.
Daniel Amen, "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life", 1998, Three Rivers Press

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