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How Depression Alters Your Brain
Depression seems to be one of the most common mental health issues today, especially in teenagers. We all know that depression can wreak havoc on your emotions, motivation, and ability to complete tasks you once found easy or even enjoyed.
But did you know depression can also alter your brain?
Not just the chemistry, but the shape. People who suffer from long lasting and intense depression have a form of depression call Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). MDD is also known as clinical depression, and a person at any age can develop it.
People with MDD display at least five of the following symptoms once or more per day over long periods of time:
- Persistent sadness and feelings of hopelessness
- Disinterest in accomplishing anything, or engaging in activities
- An extreme change in appetite (either increase or decrease) accompanied by a major shift in weight loss/gain
- Excessive or not enough sleep
- Undue and exaggerated feelings of guilt and worthlessness
- Trouble deciding things and focusing
- Dwelling on death and suicide
- Attempting suicide
Approximately 6.7% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from MDD. This disorder also occurs in approximately 1 in every 33 children, and 1 in 8 teens. It is completely treatable through therapy, prescribed medication, or both.
Now you know a bit more about severe depression, but how does it affect the brain?
The hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex all seem to play a role in MDD.
This area of the brain is centrally located and is responsible for storing memories and regulation of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is released into the body during times of mental and physical distress – including depression.
The trouble occurs when the brain exposes itself to too much cortisol. A healthy brain will produce new neurons throughout their life in an area of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus. In a brain battling MDD, this production of new brain cells will slow and cause the hippocampus to shrink. A person with a shrunken hippocampus may experience difficulties with memory.
The Prefrontal Cortex:
Near the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex regulates emotions, decision making, and early memory formation. With an excess of cortisol in the brain this area of the brain also appears to shrink.
This area of the brain controls emotional responses like pleasure and fear. Unlike the areas mentioned above, the amygdala becomes enlarged hyperactive in the presence of excess cortisol. As a result of this enlargement, and other abnormal activities in the brain, a person with MDD can experience abnormalities in regular sleep and activity patterns. Another side effect is an irregular release of other hormones in the body which can lead to further complications.
How to repair the damage:
There are several ways in which a professional mental health expert can treat a person with MDD. Often they have found that re-balancing the amount of cortisol in the brain, along with other brain chemicals, will aid in the reversal of shrinkage in the hippocampus and restore memory functionality.
In order to do this, a doctor may prescribe certain medications. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression or MDD you should see a mental health professional immediately, so they can work with you to create the proper treatment plan that will help you most effectively. It is important that you consult your doctors before trying to self-medicate.
A non-medicated way to boost your brain health, and help recover from MDD is to:
- Eat healthily
- Stay active
- Make sleep a priority
- Avoid alcohol and other illegal substances