What actually happens in our brain when we become depressed? Why do some people manage to overcome their struggles while other go into depression? Let’s have a look and try to understand how our brain is trying to protect us by hijacking our conscious mind and taking over our lives.
We have two brains : Emotional & Intellectual
We have two brain, the original primitive brain (emotional) and the intellectual brain, the one that we don’t share with other animals.
Both of our minds have two very different agendas: one follows our lead and allows us to dream, be creative, learn, make plans, choose a partner, etc… The other one keeps us alive at all costs.
Our emotional mind, situated in the limbic system is designed to protect you from any kind of danger, real or fictive, physical or emotional. Therefore, it is irrational, not an intellect and acts on emotions five times faster than our intellectual mind.
This is why sometimes we act in an irrational way that shock us afterward, when out intellectual mind kicks in and tells us our reaction wasn’t appropriate.
Our intellectual mind is different because it is where our conscious mind resides. It is where we are able to make rational, intelligent decisions, where we dream, plan, get creative…
When we operate from our intellectual brain, we can take into account our emotions (which we could refer to as ‘intuitions’) or we could ignore them completely: this brain is capable to properly assess the situation for us.
When the brain enters ‘freeze mode’
When our emotional brain perceives imminent danger it will choose between usually two responses: fly or fight. Sometimes neither of those responses are appropriate, which is the case when you suffer from a loss and feel powerless. Loss could be anything that include loss of a good reputation, sense of identity, relationship, job, grief…
As long as the brain keeps you in fly or fight response, you will continue to hope for a change. For example, if you lost your job and keep looking for a new one and trying to get interview, this is a ‘fight’ response which in this case is very useful. Remember that the emotional brain wants to keep you alive, if having a job is essential then it’ll do its best to support you with adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones to keep you in the ‘urge’ of finding a new job.
If after many weeks you can’t get a new job, the brain might decide to approach the situation differently and switch to a ‘fly’ situation and you might feel the urge to start fresh, leave your current situation behind you, breaking free from other unwanted situations (relationships, bad habits, etc.).
If neither ‘fly’ or ‘fight’ helps resolve the dangerous situation then the brain has no other choice but to enter the ‘freeze‘ mode. That is when you start feeling powerless, when sadness, anger and anxiety or taking over and you can no longer cope with the situation. Generally you start developing bad habits (going to bed too late, waking up much later, watching too much TV, drinking, etc)
When the ‘freeze’ mode continue for a long time, you become depressed. Your appetite change, your sleep is disturbed, your mood becomes more negative and sad. The things that used to make you happy have little to zero effects on you. For example you might love your dog but you don’t really want to walk them or play with them anymore.
Depression is an inner experience
Depression brings your attention back to the inside, it is a time of reflection and hurt. The brain needs time to absorb, make sense of what happened, reflect, and then rebirth. When you come out of depression, you’re a different person.
You can’t rush a depression, in fact most people would probably tell you that they did not necessarily tried to fight the depression for a certain time, but there was that moment where something ‘clicked’ and suddenly they were ready to move on. They desperately wanted or needed move on and they were ready to put in all the efforts.
It takes a lot of efforts to lift up the depression, so don’t beat yourself up if it takes times. It’s like trying to resuscitate the battery of a car who had not been driven for a very long time: it takes time and efforts but it is well worth it.
Understanding what form of loss you have experienced that left you powerless and hopeless is the first step to have that ‘click’ moment. Because then you can start making up a plan, and with a plan to can start setting up achievable goals, and with achievable goals you can start taking one step at a time and slowly but surely you’ll lift up the depression.
What happens in the brain?
Our brain produces a lot of neurotransmitters, some of them being feel-good hormones such as dopamine (motivation and pleasure) and serotonin (happiness).
The brain produces serotonin, for example, which is then being received by 5-HT receptors. The excess of serotonin is reabsorbed, a process called reuptake. It is believed that when you are in depression, the brain produces less serotonin meaning that the receptors do not get as much serotonin as usual.
Not being able to feel good, to feel excited, joy, pleasure or motivation for example will have a serious impact on your mood. You might have experienced that moment where you are at a party and you know you should feel good and happy but you really are not? If that sounds familiar then you understand how depressed people feel all the time. They can’t help it.
You could see a depressed Mum having zero pleasure organising a birthday for their child and feeling horribly sad and guilty about it. You could see a depressed husband having no sexual desire toward his wife and beating himself up wondering what is wrong with him.
Antidepressants helps stop the reuptake, meaning that the excess serotonin isn’t being reabsorbed so it remains available for the receptors which makes it easier for the brain to receive the message and act on the serotonin.
The biggest misunderstanding about antidepressants is to believe that they help create serotonin because somehow the brain has stopped producing it. Unfortunately, that’s not what they do, and you would still need to boost up the natural production of serotonin in your brain even if you take antidepressants.
Boosting up your serotonin and dopamine level
The brain respond to positivity with serotonin, therefore it is essential to have positive actions, interactions and thoughts when you want to boost up your serotonin.
Doing more of what you like, pursuing your dreams, meeting the people that make you smile and feel good… all of those will help your serotonin. But when you are depressed just going to the fridge to feed yourself is difficult which is why you might want to seek help.
If you feel that talking about what happened could help you, then you would benefit from seeing a talking therapist or a counsellor. They can listen and help you make sense of what happens.
When talking about your problems is not for you and you would prefer to feel good and take control over your life again, it is better to look for mindset therapies such as coaching, hypnotherapy, NLP and of course the one I practice and believe in the most : Solution Focused Hypnotherapy.
This is the first ever article on the blog – I hope it was useful, please share and comment if you liked what you read and if you have any questions do get in touch 🙂
To all the kind souls that are hurting out there, my heart goes to you and I want you to know that it’s going to be okay. You’re not alone, there is so much love in your heart, you will find your way out of depression.