The Neuroscience of Depression and Anxiety

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Over Christmas, I went back to Italy to see my family. It had the best time ever as I was finally anxious and depression free. Months of therapy, meds and permanent changes towards healthy habits really made the difference. Some negative thoughts are still there but I am doing much better at dealing with it. I took this time to tell my parents, in sciency words, a bit more about the neuroscience of anxiety and depression. I apologise if there is some inconsistency, my background is in chemistry.

As much as our world evolved, the back side of our brain (old brain) is still like we were living in the forest, hunting for food and sleeping in caves. Back in the days, life was very rough and our ancestor needed to react quickly to every threat. Scientists at the University of California recently found the so-called “anxiety cells” which are located in the hippocampus (in mice). (1) In anxious-free people, these cells and part of the amygdala fire up only in dangerous or life-threatening situations, whereas they fire up in any random occasion, such as making a phone call, going to the post office, being late for an appointment in people suffering from anxiety.

The back side of our brain trigger anxiety and it’s crucial for survival.

The neuroscience of depression is different. It’s due to low production of serotonin, the chemical equivalent of happiness, in the brain. Usually, traumatic events during childhood or adolescence, such as bullism, violence, prolonged stress, lack of relationships and isolation lower the level of serotonin in the brain and we get depressed.

Antidepressants help to rebuild normal levels of serotonin in the brain and, if used for at least 6 months, they are definitely a big boost for your mood. (2) However, they aren’t a long-term solution. If you suffer from chronic depression, you need to combine meds and cognitive therapy. Why? To understand what’s trigger your depression. It helps you break the cycle of negative thinking and all the unhelpful stories your mind tells yourself such as, “I’m alone, none loves me, I am useless, I’m a failure, everything I do is a disaster etc”. (3) Therapy might be expensive, I heard of $120/session in the USA. My suggestion is to for alternative and cheaper solutions using Skype. English is a worldwide language and you can hire a therapist everywhere.

Outsource a therapist and try Skype. English is a worldwide language and the internet broke the barriers of communication.

Finally, use other resources such as meditation and mindfulness. Focusing on your breathing and body for 10/20 min per day helps calming anxiety and eases depression. Meditation strengthens connections in the front side of the brain (new brain) so, your brain gets less responsive to the old brain (if you remember the “survival brain”). I have been practising meditation everyday for a month now. I seriuosly wish I had started this before. It’s been a life changer. Meditation, above all for beginners, isn’t easy but you can start using apps such as Calm or Headspace to get into it. Alternately, you can try yoga, in fact, most yoga practices are also meditative.
Suggested books: The mindful way through depression, The power of positive thinking, Feel the fair and do it anyway.

(1) https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(18)30019-9

(2) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006322398002108

(3) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028390808002311?via%3Dihub

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