Like the rest of our bodies, our brains change as we grow older. We become more forgetful; We have a more difficult time remembering what we had for dinner last night, or the name of the person we were introduced to last week. We used to remember appointments without writing them down, but now we have to keep a daytimer.
The words on a page start getting fuzzy when we approach the age of 40, and we say “What?” more often as we ask people to repeat what they’ve said to us. Food we used to enjoy might start to smell or taste different.
It’s all a normal part of being human.
Did you know, though, that depression could have these same effects on us, no matter our age?
“Cognitive” refers to the intellectual skills of our brains, such as memory, decision-making, judgment, attention, and reason. There are several areas of our brains that assist in cognition, and they are fueled and maintained by chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, that travel with lightning speed along a path of trillions of nerve cells.
When we are depressed, the journey of the neurotransmitters from one nerve cell to the next is interrupted or slowed down, which has a profound effect on our thinking.
“Executive function” is your brain’s air traffic controller. It takes a jumble of thoughts and impulses and steers them in the appropriate directions, resulting in safe and productive outcomes. It allows you to plan, focus your attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks.
Executive function consists of three primary parts:
- Working memory—allows you to process information, solve complex tasks, and understand deep ideas
- Inhibitory control—allows you to concentrate, regulate your emotions, and control your behavior
- Cognitive flexibility—allows you to adapt to new tasks quickly, and change your perspective. If you can’t adapt, you get stuck in old thought patterns, and people might think you stubborn and uncooperative.
Now let’s break these down.
If you’re suffering from depression you may have trouble remembering things—where you put your keys, the name of that person you were supposed to call, that really important dentist appointment that was—oops, last week… or someone takes the time to explain how to do something and you when you try it, you can’t remember a thing…
People with depression are more likely to experience problems with attention. You start a task, but just can’t concentrate enough to complete it. You get distracted easily and can’t focus. You just started a new book by your favorite author—and you’ve read the first page ten times but can’t recall a single word.
And then you lose patience and explode in anger or dissolve in tears.
Depression may render you unable to make even the smallest decisions. You can’t decide what to have for breakfast, what shoes to wear, or whether it would be better to run errands after work today or to wait until tomorrow. Such simple choices completely overwhelm you and you feel so paralyzed with indecision that you don’t make any choices at all.
When you arrive at work your boss lets you know that he’s decided to take a different approach to that project you’ve been working on for three weeks. He wants you to start over. You resist and begin arguing with him. You just can’t bear the thought of making the change. The very thought of starting again makes you feel absolutely exhausted, and you simply don’t know how you’re going to handle this…
And once again, you lose patience and explode in frustration…
And Now To Your Senses…
Scientific studies have shown that depression affects all five senses.
A Harvard University study revealed that when you experience depression, you’re not always able to detect differences in black and white contrasts, so the world takes on more of a grey hue. And the more depressed you are, the greyer the world seems.
Depression may also cause you to be more sensitive to light. This means that light levels that other people find normal can feel almost blinding or painful to you.
In the brain, olfactory bulbs are responsible for the sense of smell. Scientists have discovered that olfactory bulbs in depressed people are smaller than people who are not depressed. And the more depressed you are, the smaller your olfactory bulbs are likely to be.
Even your sense of taste can be altered by depression. Food you once loved now tastes bland and unappealing. So you add more seasoning a dish you’re cooking, and your family complains that it’s too salty or spicy (it tastes just fine to you).
When we feel depressed, many of us are more sensitive to sounds and noise. Everyday sounds can thus be difficult to cope with, resulting in more depression, irritability, and anxiety. Turn down the volume on the television or radio. To dull bothersome sounds you can’t control, you might want to wear ear protectors—the kind construction workers wear when they are using a jackhammer—or the spongy earplugs that fit in your ear canal.
When you live with depression, it’s common to feel more sensitive to pain and touch. An otherwise-welcome hug may be unpleasant or even painful to you. Different types of textures may seem intolerable. If this is the case, try to make your environment more acceptable and comfortable. If the texture of your clothing bothers you, wear a thin cotton layer under clothes that are more abrasive. Wrap yourself in a fluffy throw when you read or watch television.
Often being under something heavy can help you feel calm. Weighted blankets are great for this. Put one on your bed and snuggle underneath it. It’s liable to make you feel safe and restful.
There Is Hope
If you live with depression, don’t despair. There are ways to mitigate the effect it has on you.
Feed your brain
The link between diet and good mental health is growing. Eating a balanced diet and high quality foods will nourish your brain and give it the fuel it needs to keep your cognitive processes in top form.
A brain-friendly, mood-boosting diet includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, and limited amounts of sodium, saturated fat, and sugar. A diet high in refined sugars and carbohydrates can impair brain functions and worsen symptoms of depression.
Move Your Body
If you are someone who is depressed and finds it difficult to get out of bed, exercise is the last word you want to hear and the last thing you want to do. But if you force yourself to get up, get dressed, and get out the door—whether to a gym or on a walk around your neighborhood—you will feel better. Exercise stimulates the neurotransmitters in the brain whose job it is to make you feel good. You’ll be glad you made the effort!
Engage in Therapy.
Seeking therapy is not a sign of weakness; quite the opposite. Those who recognize they need help are the strongest among us. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you don’t need therapy, or that all therapists are “quacks,” or that you should be able to handle your problems by yourself. If you feel you could benefit from therapy, make the call and set up an appointment. Just doing so will make you feel better (it’s called “pre-session change”), and you’ll be on your way to living your best life.
Try Neurofeedback Therapy
The good news is that this is an exciting tie for neuroscience. For example, the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) recently studied the effectiveness of Neurofeedback as a complementary treatment of depression. Their results suggested that Neurofeedback treatments helped those patients feel well again and positively engage with life. Elumind is having great success with treating people through this therapy. So, brain-based therapies are also part of the solution to helping people with their experience with depression.
We understand what you are going through and are ready and willing to assist you.