What Happens To Our Brain In Depression?

Do I want to live?

Depressed Teen

A Teen Brain in Depression

What happens to our brain in depression? Pastor Johnson’s teen daughter became so depressed he brought her to Christian psychiatrist Donald Hall. Her softball teammates had “betrayed” her, she believed for example, an ex-boyfriend was “stalking” her, and, overwhelmed, she collapsed with thoughts of suicide.

In Breaking Through Depression, Hall puts his finger on brain changes in depression: “Like water cascading down a series of ledges,” he writes, “the chemicals that come with stress move to deeper and deeper levels of the brain on the way to depression. What starts as worries related to normal life challenges can lead to unhealthy levels of stress hormones and to brain cell injury. As large groups of cells become injured, chemical imbalances develop in the mood-control regions of the brain.”  Suicidal thoughts alert us to refer our loved ones, friends and ourselves for a medical evaluation.

Five years after beginning treatment with Dr. Hall, Pastor Johnson’s daughter no longer thinks about suicide. In fact, she is beginning a family of her own.

John’s “Burned Out” Brain

“Something chemical was going on,” John said, “adrenaline or something… it was out of my control.” Although chronically depressed, after he recovered from feeling “burned out” this time, he reported his sensation just prior to his depressive episode to Dr. Donald Hall. John’s body had signaled a need for help. John described the physical sensation of too much stress to Dr. Hall.

Under stress our brain changes. With normal levels of stress, for example, we perform well: nail a job interview, pass a test, weather a conflict. When stress persists over longer periods, however, high levels of the hormone cortisol begin to affect us. Headaches, ulcers, and neck pain can indicate that we live with too much stress. With raised levels of cortisol in our blood and in the fluid which surrounds our brain, our brain’s system of messaging breaks down. Some delicate brain cell branches break off; others die. As a result, some areas of our brain cannot communicate with other areas. That, in turn, reduces the amount of serotonin, a hormone which promotes a sense of well-being. Losing serotonin increases our risk of depression.

The Dangerous Cascade

Dr. Hall describes how the dangerous cascade works in which cortisol can create problems for our brain cells: cell branches break – that reduces serotonin – that blocks cell growth – cells die. These changes can also create changes in our personality: we feel agitated, excited (manic, over the top), enraged, depressed, and experience suicidal thoughts. Unlike most people, when John felt “something chemical going on,” he recognized a clue to brain cell injury and depression.

If you experience changes in your mood (feelings), actions, or thoughts (e.g., of death or dying), it may be time to consult your doctor, counselor, or psychiatrist. If you have consulted any of these professionals, what have you discovered? Have you or someone you know ever thought about or attempted suicide? What was the outcome?

More from Dr. Hall next week. See Breaking Through Depression: A Biblical and Medical Approach to Emotional Wholeness. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2009, pp. 36, 38-40. For more information on suicide prevention, see https://www.gordongrose.com/preventing-suicide/. Photo: pxhere.com. No copyright infringement is intended.

About Grose

Gordon Grose loves most to write, speak, and preach on the message of hope from the book of Job. Using drama, video, and PowerPoint, he has preached and presented this message of hope to churches around the country. Grose pastored three congregations 25 years, then served 12 years as a pastoral counselor in a Portland, Oregon counseling clinic. He now serves with Good Samaritan Counseling Services, Beaverton, OR. A graduate of Wheaton College (IL), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Brandeis University, and Boston University, he comes from a rich and varied background in theological and counseling training. In 2015, Gordon published Tragedy Transformed: How Job's Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours, a book about turning to Job for hope after tragedy. If you have experienced life challenges or personal tragedy, visit his Transforming Tragedy (gordongrose.com) blog to learn more. TragedyTransformed.com provides a sample of Gordon's speaking as well as an opportunity to purchase copies of his book.
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