Everyone feels “blue” or sad from time to time. It’s a normal life experience. But when these emotions begin to interfere with your life – if they keep you from enjoying your usual activities or disrupt relationships or responsibilities – it may be a sign of depression.
Depression is a serious, debilitating mental illness that affects nearly one in 10 adults. Depression is an illness – not a weakness – that causes many of those who suffer to hide their condition, feeling a strong sense of shame. In the throes of depression, it is hard to escape feelings of failure and hopelessness.
When normal emotions no longer serve you well
Becoming sad or blue isn’t a sure sign of depression. Life brings difficulties that we respond to with a wide range of normal emotions: sadness, anxiety, resignation, grief, helplessness. Moods are cyclical, and these responses to tough events most often subside on their own. If they linger, however, and there seems to be no definite cause or trigger, such as losing your job or the death of a loved one, depression is accepted as the conventional diagnosis.
Symptoms of Depression
- Feelings of sadness or emptiness
- Diminished interest or pleasure in usual activities
- Significant weight loss/gain
- Decrease/increase in appetite
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Slowing of thoughts and physical movements
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Excessive or inappropriate guilt
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
A mind–body approach to depression
Even though the exact causes of depression remain unclear, doctors and scientists do understand depression as a state of internal imbalance with either psychological or physiological underpinnings. Many researchers share the view that an imbalance in naturally occurring chemicals known as neurotransmitters, found throughout the brain and the body, is at the root of depression. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, help transport messages between nerve cells. In the brain, serotonin and norepinephrine are thought to be associated with mood as well as with the regulation and reduction of pain feelings that come from the body. Imbalances in dopamine are thought to be associated with changes in appetite and the loss of pleasure, energy, or drive.
Risk Factors for Depression
- Family history Gender (women are affected twice as often as men)
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
- Postpartum depression
- Death or loss of a loved one
- Loss of employment/financial troubles
- Serious illness or trauma
- Substance abuse
- Side effects from certain medications
- Endocrine-related diseases such as hypothyroidism
- Nutrient deficiencies in diet
- Restore balance and regain your joy
The symptoms of depression and the risk factors that underlie the disease stem from a disruption in the normal balancing mechanisms of the mind and body. Treatment, therefore, should be aimed at restoring balance.
The best first step is a visit to your family doctor to find out if the cause of your depression is physiological, such as a thyroid problem, a reaction to a medication, or some other medical condition. Discuss the various treatment options with your healthcare providers, and be sure to explore all the benefits of talk therapy in addition to any medications that your doctor may prescribe.
Steps to Begin Healing
Talk to a therapist
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, works as well at combating depression as medication does for many people. It may be used alone or in combination with other forms of treatment. Focused, goal-oriented forms of therapy such as cognitive-behavior therapy appear to be the most effective in treating depression.
Optimize your diet
Mediterranean countries have low rates of depression compared to countries farther to the north—and it isn’t just because they get more sunlight or have a more relaxed lifestyle. Researchers speculate that olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish, which are rich in omega-3 and other unsaturated fatty acids, may act synergistically to enhance brain function and boost mood.
Moderate aerobic exercise 30 minutes per day, three days per week, can reduce symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression and can help with severe depression. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, the “feel-good” chemicals, and has been shown to raise levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that play an important role in mood regulation.
Yoga is an excellent mind-body activity that can reduce stress and anxiety and promote feelings of well-being. Studies have shown that the breathing, stretching, and strengthening elements of yoga signal the brain to initiate the body’s relaxation response. When practicing yoga, pay close attention to your body and try to release any areas of tension you feel.
Mindfulness meditation, in which the meditator focuses on the present moment, can be a useful treatment for both stress and mild-to-moderate depression. Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness meditation causes changes in brain activity that is associated with lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state. No special gear is needed – just a quiet space and a few free minutes.
If you feel too helpless and hopeless to take the first steps towards healing, outside help may be needed, specifically a therapist or counselor who specializes in depression. Help is available. Connect to doctors, therapists, family, and friends that you trust who can support you in rebalancing your life, gaining control over the disorder, understanding who you are, and elevating your vision of possibilities for yourself.
Ways to Boost Your Balance
- Spend time with people who help you feel alive and vibrant.
- Talk to and share your feelings with those who listen with empathy and offer positive support.
- Avoid negative people. Depression can be contagious.
- Regain a sense of control.
- Claim your sense of self. Know what you need and maintain boundaries.
- Address situations that would make anyone sad, such as grief, loss, or an unfulfilling job or relationship.
- Treat your body well. Exercise.
- Reduce stress.
- Get enough sleep. Shoot for 8 hours per night.
- Work with your physician to combine any necessary antidepressants with other therapies.