Depression: What is it Really?

I consider myself to be very blessed and fortunate. To feel this way requires perspective — to consider not only my life’s circumstances but also the circumstances of other people in my community and beyond. Sometimes when people like me who’ve grown up in a well-off community feel down or “depressed,” I often wonder: can we fairly characterize what we’re feeling as being “depressed”? If what I am experiencing is just a small fraction of the pain and suffering felt by someone else across the world, how could I possibly say that I’m “suffering”? And as a follow-up thought, I then try to reconsider what it even means to be depressed. Is depression just a prolonged, long-term bad mood, or is it much more than that?

What does depression really look like? (https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/3-causes-of-suffering-you-need-to-understand.html)

Nevertheless, depression is something that has, for a long time, been something that I’ve been passionate about. Although I know that I’ve never personally experienced true depression, I know people who have endured the pains of actual depression. As such, while I am by no means a therapist or an expert in this field, I believe I carry some insight in dealing with the emotional effects and implications of depression.

However, that’s pretty much where my “expertise” ends —its emotional aspect — since my personal experiences in combating this problem are limited to interactions with close friends and family. However, something that I’ve learned over the years is that while there may never be a be-all and end-all solution to depression, an important first step to take is to be open with our feelings.

Being open with our feelings to the people we know we can trust is important! Especially when we’re on the left side of the spectrum above (image credit: https://www.paulekman.com/blog/scientists-study-emotion-agree/)

Let’s face it — everyone faces dark moments, and as such, are all susceptible to feelings of depression. In fact, anxiety disorders are a major public health issue in the U.S., affecting ~18% of the population each year. However, we simply either don’t want or know how to share our feelings, especially struggles, with each other, imprisoning them internally. We often refuse to take this risk because we fear that someone could view us as weak or vulnerable.

That’s why I believe in being open. And while I realize that to simply voice one’s emotions or to listen to another person’s sharing may not be enough, I’ve found that it is necessary as a powerful first step. By taking time out of your day to willingly sit down with someone and just talk with them, you’re telling that person that you want him or her to trust you; you want to help them not because it’ll necessarily make yourself feel good but rather because you want them to feel better. Feelings of depression are almost always magnified when the affected person is alone, and merely offering an open ear can mean so much to him or her. To me, an act like this is one of the few actions that someone can take with the intent of being selfless. To me, although depression is something we would never want in our lives, we can use the pains and sufferings of it as a way to mature and grow our love and concern for others.

But again, just to be clear, I recognize that my experiences with depression are so limited compared to many others. I just wanted to share something that I’ve found to be relatively effective in dealing with it, but there is so much more that we can do. In fact, science and biology also have a say in where depression comes from and how we can combat it using other means like medicine.

Scientists initially thought that low levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of joy and all-around “goodness,” was the cause of depression.

Serotonin in chemistry terms (image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serotonin)

Taking this hypothesis a step further, a study was done on depression patients that involved feeding them drugs containing serotonin, and a correlation was established between increased serotonin levels and feeling better. However, while chemicals are most certainty involved, as scientists began to dig even deeper, we begin to realize that chemicals like serotonin don’t quite capture the entire complexity of depression.

This is where brain cell connections come in, specifically those of the hippocampus (a structure in the brain responsible for memory and emotion). Those who were depressed tended to have smaller-sized hippocampi, and as the depression got worse, the hippocampus would continue to shrink and stunt its normal functions. However, scientists found that if we stimulate the growth of the hippocampus with new neurons, patients would feel better.

And then the whole topic gets even more complicated when we start talking about genetics and the heritability of depression. If you want to continue learning more, please see the below video for a summary of what I’ve been talking about and more:

In the end, I don’t think we’ll ever have a surefire way of dealing with depression 100% of cases. Because everyone who experiences depression was brought up into it in unique manners, there will most likely never be an antidote to the personal, emotional implications of depression simply because these will invariably differ from person to person. However, that doesn’t mean we should remain hopeful! I am confident that as science continues to progress, we will continue to unlock both the biological and emotional explanations of depression.

Adam Zhang

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Inspiring scientific literacy, self-efficacy, and student interest in STEM. Run by students from the March for Science: Students for Science

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