“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” –William James, American philosopher and psychologist.
Feelings of depression have become increasingly common in the modern world. According to the WHO, 350 million people now suffer from depression worldwide, and in the US alone, 16 million adults had at least one depressive episode in the year 2012. These numbers are quite different from what they were just a generation ago. According to recent data collected from 6.9 million adolescents and adults, North Americans are struggling with more symptoms of depression, such as difficulty sleeping and eating, than their counterparts did in the 1980s.
The increasing prevalence of depression among adolescents has been even more alarming. In a study of national trends published last November in the journal Pediatrics, teens were 37% more likely to have suffered from a major depressive episode compared to a decade ago. In California’s largest school district, more than 5,000 incidents of suicidal behaviour were tallied last year, compared with only 255 during the year 2010-11.
In a paper written for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientist Robert Sapolsky wrote, “humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences [for our emotional health]”.
Despite the increasing prevalence of depression, we still don’t quite understand how it’s caused, and the results of new research has been sobering. It now appears that prolonged stress or trauma is strongly associated with decreased volume in the hippocampus, the part of the human brain responsible for regulating thoughts and feelings, enhancing self-control, and creating new memories. Unfortunately, the hippocampus also has the unique function of rapidly generating new connections between brain cells, so when the hippocampus shrinks, your brain shrinks too.
Under prolonged stress, your brain becomes flooded with high levels of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, which we now know can disrupt normal information processing so that higher-order reasoning and decision-making becomes more difficult and fragmented. As a result, positive or compassionate interpretations of events become more difficult to envision, and thinking becomes stuck in a negative groove of self-criticism and pessimism.
So, how can we prevent these increasingly common depressive episodes? How can we protect our brains from the shrinking effects of excess cortisol?
Well, there are three things that have been proven to help:
1) Take an omega-3 supplement. Omega-3 fatty acids contain DHA or docosahexaenoic acid, which is a central building block of brain tissue. DHA has natural anti-inflammatory properties that help to combat the effects of cortisol and prevent plaque build-up, which should promote the formation of more dendrites.
2) Exercise every day. Increased blood circulation to the brain through daily exercise can strengthen brain cells and neuronal connections. Researchers suspect this is why daily physical exercise has been shown to reduce the chance of developing dementia as you age.
3) Practice daily prayer, meditation, or yoga. All of these daily rituals strengthen what is called “the relaxation response,” which lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. When your body is more relaxed, new studies show that gene expression becomes altered so that inflammation and cell death is less likely, and your body is better able to handle free radicals. In the case of meditation, daily practice has been shown to strengthen the pre-frontal cortex, which grants us greater distance and control over our thoughts. When we have greater ability to choose the thoughts we dwell on, and which to let go, depressive thinking has less chance to take hold.
Unfortunately for us, there is very little we can do to avoid emotional traumas like unexpected job loss, chronic illness, or physical and emotional abuse. However, by taking certain preventative measures, we can help our brain stay more resilient against these stresses. A strong brain is a controlled brain. When our brain functioning is strong, we can choose and direct our thoughts rather than allowing them to run off a cliff. So far, this has been proven to be the best protection against depression and dementia.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.