Beating the Blues
Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses. It can affect people regardless of their age or circumstances. Reported increases in depression worldwide cannot be due to a reduction in the stigma associated with mental illness. It seems more likely that it is associated with significant social and lifestyle changes that have taken place over the last 20 years. The good news is that depression is treatable. At the same time, depression is poorly understood, and this might prevent people from recognising the warning signs, resulting in them not seeking help. So, understanding depression is important.
What are the symptoms of depression? Depression involves a marked decline in mood, negative thoughts and feelings, and social withdrawal. Other common symptoms are anxiety, disturbed sleep, changes in appetite, sudden weight loss or gain, lethargy, difficulty thinking clearly and memory problems.
Depression is associated with a pattern of coping called avoidance. This results in isolation, inactivity and social withdrawal. Avoidance reinforces negative thinking and a sense of failure. This can lead to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
What causes depression? Although there is no single cause for depression, there are factors that place some people at more risk than others. These include:
Experiencing loss, trauma or adversity
Perfectionistic thinking – having overly high expectations of ourselves and others
Poor social skills that make forming and maintaining social relationships difficult
Thinking patterns that make us vulnerable
Lifestyle and diet
Thinking patterns that make us vulnerable Depression is associated with rigid patterns of thinking, involving a preference for black and white answers to problems that are more in the “grey” zone. The ability to navigate the grey zone requires us to make judgements that take into account important context information relevant to our circumstances. How we do this is determined by our Attributional Style. This refers to how we interpret and respond to events in our life. It affects how we feel about ourselves and others, and the decisions we make. The following examples demonstrate different attribution styles.
I always fail versus, I made a mistake that time
I can’t do anything right, versus, I’ll do better next time
This is too risky, versus I can give it a go
No one likes me, versus I can grow my social circle
I need others to like me, versus my opinions count too
Things never change, versus things can change
Lifestyle and diet There is increasing evidence that points to the importance of lifestyle habits. It has been clearly demonstrated that exercise has an anti-depressant effect. Exercise is, therefore, a preventative factor and can be very helpful for reducing mild to moderate depression.
One of the most interesting areas of current research is the relationship between diet, the gut and mental illness. A very important hormone – serotonin – is manufactured in the gut from the food we eat. We need serotonin to think. Sluggishness, poor mental clarity and memory problems are all features of depression. Like exercise, our dietary choices impact our capacity to live active, engaged lives as well as healthy ageing.
Children’s brains and minds are having the foundations for adulthood laid, as they eat. Commenting on the negative effects of high-sugar diets, neurologist and author Dr David Perlmutter said: “if we want to care for our minds, then we have to be mindful about what we eat”. Depression is more than the mind.
Treating Depression Depression is one of the most treatable mental illnesses. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helps a person to understand and change thinking patterns and habits. Depression can occur with other difficulties such as chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders. Sometimes these need to be addressed first, and this may involve other tailored treatments. It is therefore important to seek assistance from a qualified professional, who can complete a thorough assessment and put together an individualised treatment plan.
Anne Ward is principal psychologist of Mindinsight, providing evidence-based psychology services to adults, children and adolescents. Mindinsight is located in the T&G Building at 45 Hunter Street Newcastle. Visit www.mindinsight.com.au or phone (02) 4942 7660.