By Gloria Burdett
Brain researchers and scientists have discovered that there’s a direct link between stress and depression. When we become stressed by difficult life events, our brains produce chemicals that fuel the “fight-flight response” that can save our lives in an emergency. But, if we have a period of prolonged stress, those same chemicals can actually damage the brain circuits that balance mood and anxiety levels. Prolonged stress can result in the brain illness we know as depression.
Common symptoms of depression are found in our mood, thinking and how we feel physically.
Mood symptoms include feeling sad all of the time, feeling heavy-hearted and despairing, crying easily and often, or feeling anxious, fearful and irritable and short-tempered.
Depression can actually change our thinking. Some common changes can be seeing mostly the negative side of things, going over things again and again in our mind, frequently being critical of ourselves and others, feeling guilty, worthless, discouraged, feeling like nothing matters anymore, feeling hopeless, thinking life is no longer worth living, and having thoughts of death including suicide.
Physical symptoms of depression may include poor sleep, no longer enjoying favorite foods, decreased appetite or compulsive eating resulting in either rapid weight loss or gain, loss of normal energy and feeling exhausted most of the time, an increase in aches and pains, feeling restless and generally unable to relax.
Because depression affects a person’s emotional state and mental attitude, there are many misconceptions about it. The popular use of the word “depression” to describe negative feelings that come and go contributes to confusion about the illness of depression, which is actually a serious medical condition.
One misconception about depression is that it has to do with character and strength of will. Modern medical science, however, has proven that depression is not a sign of personal weakness. “Being tough” has little to do with depression.
Fortunately, mild depression can be successfully treated with healthy lifestyle changes such as getting regular exercise and adequate sleep, and reducing or eliminating alcohol use. The stressors causing mild depression also can be reduced through reaching out to supportive family and friends or through professional counseling. The combination of positive lifestyle changes and therapy can speed the healing process while making us more resilient to stress.
Treatment of moderate or severe depression often requires a longer process that will likely include professional counseling and use of medications that heal and balance the brain circuits involved in depression. Many times, talking to your primary care provider about making a referral is the toughest step. The right mental health provider will get to know you, understand your life stressors and then design a personalized treatment approach that can put you on the path to wellness.
Gloria Burdett, is the director of Behavioral Health for PACE at Element Care. She can be reached at 877-803-5564 or visit www.elementcare.org for more information. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.