Posted on July 23, 2019
Depression is a serious mental health condition that affects millions of people in the U.S every year. While symptoms present themselves differently in each person, research has discovered some common ways it can affect your brain.
Curious to know, “how does depression affect your brain?” In this article, we’ll dive into a discussion of what depression is and its effects on the minds of people who have been diagnosed. We’ll also discuss how treatment can help reverse the effects of depression on the human brain.
Depression is a mental condition that affects how we feel, think, and act. While depression-related feelings and thoughts can be different from person to person, they usually include intense feelings of sadness and hopelessness. These feelings can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to many years.
Depression is different from feeling sad about something that has occurred in your life. Short periods of sadness or hopelessness are completely normal and aren’t the same as depression. When therapists diagnose depression, they usually look for symptoms that have been going on for at least a couple of weeks.
Some people with depression have just one, short episode in their life. Others have several, intense, and longer periods of depression over the course of their lifetime. The more serious, ongoing cases of depression are known as major depressive disorder or MDD. It might also be called clinical depression or major depression.
The symptoms of major depression can make life very difficult. Major depression affects every area of a person’s life - including work, school and general socializing. In order for someone to be diagnosed with MDD, they typically experience five or more of the following mental and physical symptoms every day for at least two weeks:
Severe depression affects 17.3 million adults in the U.S. each year. That’s over 7 percent of the adult population in the United States. In addition, nearly 2 million children live with diagnosed depression. But what exactly is depression and how does major depression affect the brain?
You might be surprised to learn how your brain can be physically altered by depression. The question remains whether it’s the feelings caused by depression that lead to the physical changes or the other way around. Here are four ways depression changes the brain:
Depression has shown lead to lower amounts of oxygen in the body. Why this happens is unknown, but it could be linked to changes in breathing that result from feeling depressed.
The brain needs oxygen to function, and even very small reductions or shifts in the level of oxygen to the brain can lead to major changes. Lower amounts of oxygen can kill brain cells and cause inflammation in the brain. Short periods of lowered oxygen can result in confusion and delirium.
Our brain can become inflamed similar to our muscles when in distress. Studies have shown that people who’ve been depressed for a long time (10 years or more) had about 30 percent more inflammation in their brains than people who aren’t.
Brain inflammation can alter the way the brain functions, affecting the way we learn, remember, and feel. It’s no wonder that inflammation is linked to depression since depression is a mood disorder that is characterized by negative feelings.
Inflammation can also lead to other physical changes in the brain. This includes shrinkage, neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change over time), and neurotransmitter functionality problems.
Research has shown that many areas of our brain can shrink due to depression. When a section of the brain shrinks, that area’s ability to perform its functions decreases. These changes can occur in as little as a few months. The longer and more intense a person’s depression is, the more areas of their brain will be affected.
There are many components to our brains. Shrinkage is one example of how the areas of the brain can change structurally. However, depression can also affect the brain by increasing the size of certain areas or changing their shape. Because of this, how the areas of the brain interact and communicate with each other can be altered by depression.
Changes in the structure of the brain due to depression usually takes at least 8 months to become apparent. These changes can result in long-lasting or permanent shifts in memory, attention, mood, and emotions--even after a major depressive episode has ended.
Changes in the brain caused by depression can seriously affect the way our brain functions. It can also exacerbate the symptoms of depression. Fortunately, depression treatment can combat the ways that it tends to affect the brain.
Several medications are available that can help to keep the brain’s chemistry at a normal level during depressive episodes. The most common type of antidepressants is selective serotonin uptake inhibitors or SSRIs. They work to alleviate depression’s effects on the brain by boosting and stabilizing serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical in our brain that’s responsible for our feelings of pleasure.
Other medications exist to treat depression. Most of them work to ease the symptoms by adjusting the levels of brain chemicals that are responsible for some of the feelings associated with depression. Medication can be a powerful tool in helping to treat this condition as long as it’s prescribed by a doctor and used correctly.
Psychotherapy is capable of altering the structure of the brain and helping to reverse the effects of depression. Therapy can help to strengthen the prefrontal cortex region of our brain. The prefrontal cortex plays a role in personality, decision-making, and social interaction.
It’s amazing to think that talking to a mental health professional about our thoughts and feelings could change the structure of our brain. This shows how our mood and how we feel impact our physical bodies.
Depression is a serious condition that often requires professional treatment. There are also activities you can do to help reduce its effects. For example, eating healthy food and exercising regularly have both shown to stimulate and strengthen the communication between our brain cells.
Similarly, sleeping well has been shown to repair and grow brain cells. Depression commonly affects sleep patterns resulting in too much or too little sleep. Sometimes, this is out of your control, but it’s important to know that getting good sleep can greatly reduce the effects of depression.
Finally, avoiding alcohol and illicit drugs is always a good idea. These substances have been shown to destroy brain cells, which is the last thing you need when you’re struggling with depression.
Despite the fact that depression can alter the way our brain looks and functions, there are treatment options available to combat these changes. Never hesitate to reach out for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the effects of depression. The time to focus your mental health is now. Find the right match for a therapist on Advekit today to learn more about the importance of treatment for depression.
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.