Depression: It's Not About Character; It's About the Nervous System

Stress puts wear and tear on our nervous system. With good health, meaningful interests and activities, a supportive network of friends and family, and other resources in our lives, we typically can cope with everyday stressors quite well. However, every brain and nervous system has limits. If we go through prolonged periods of high stress, the brain can become overwhelmed and, as a result, cease to grow. Thus, it can feel confusing for people that even with time and sufficient supports to settle and come down from high stress, we can manifest symptoms of depression. This lack of brain growth (or neurogenesis), results in feeling flat and disinterested. Depressed individuals complain about a lack of joy or the ability to experience pleasure.

With depression, it’s almost as if the computer has overheated, had too many programs running at once, and crashes, needing time to cool off, defragment and reboot. Essentially, the brain and nervous system needs support to help create sufficient space again to be able to engage with interests and new learning that help the brain to grow. A growing brain is not a depressed brain.

Unfortunately, our society tends to hold beliefs that symptoms of depression are about character I.e. If we just tried harder to be cheerful, or change our mental outlook, we can pull ourselves out of depression. This perspective often contributes to depressed individuals feeling as if they are “weak” or lacking worth. These notions can contribute to increased feelings of shame, which can lead to a feeling isolation and increased depression.

Symptoms of depression are not about character, they’re about the brain and the nervous system and how we deal with stress and recover from stressful, sometimes traumatic experiences. For many of us, we have learned to cope with stress by minimizing it I.e. “It’s not that bad”, or denying it i.e. “This is nothing, I’m fine.” We also live in a society that tends to value stoicism and a strong work ethic I.e. If we just work harder, and “suck it up” we can get what we need/want. The net effect is a sense of minimizing our lives: we go to work and come home, stop trying new things and having fun.

A regulated nervous system is a balanced nervous system: it is essential to balance life stressors with activities that are joyful, pleasurable and fun. We also need supports in our lives: people that are in our corners, and have our backs through both good and challenging times. In going through a particularly stressful time, it may be helpful to consult with a skilled mental health professional to help bring your system back into balance. We often take excellent care of our cars, computers, pets, but decide to white-knuckle it through our own tough times, as if this “builds character” or proves we are strong.

It certainly requires strength to go through high stress experiences, but when this period subsides, it is essential to long term mental and physical well-being to find a way back to a healthy baseline. This can feel quite uncomfortable: often there are symptoms of anxiety that manifest when we start to come out of high stress coping. This is normal. However, because this process can feel so uncomfortable, it is highly advisable to obtain professional support, so that you can ask the questions you need, and get helpful tips on how to cope with these symptoms as well as release the buildup of stress from your nervous system. Without quality professional support, individuals often spend time cycling back and forth between symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Sometimes the reasons for manifesting symptoms of depression are easy to find I.e. A recent stressful situation such as a health crisis, loss of a loved one, loss of career, loss of one’s culture, or a significant traumatic event. Often the reasons do not seem as obvious due to an insidious creep of stressors over time. Hidden stressors can take the form of long term stress in a job, unhealthy work environments, relationship stress/lack of support, minor car accident(s)/near misses, falls/concussions, minor or major medical/dental procedures, choking/near drowning/electrocution, or past abuse. All of these cause a fight/flight or freeze response in the body, which fires the nervous system 100% to act for survival. This nervous system response to stress occurs despite thinking before, during or after that “it is no big deal,” or “I was lucky to survive.” If the nervous system doesn’t get a chance to release that stress, it stays in the body. Thus, people often express surprise when 20 years after an event, they still can feel the intensity of the experience in the body, until it has a chance to be released.

Many people can obtain a cognitive understanding of why they may be experiencing depression. However, cognition alone is insufficient to release the stress from the nervous system. Working with a practitioner who can help you orient to the present moment sensations in your body, can help your nervous system regulate and release that buildup of stress. This is because the language of the nervous system is sensation.

Often people recognize changes in themselves long before symptoms of depression manifest I.e. Prolonged, disrupted sleep, reduced concentration, increased irritability, reduced capacity for social engagement, increased fatigue, forgetfulness, increased startle response, increased sensitivity to light, sound, smell, increased food or environmental sensitivities, more injury prone, over/under breathing, brain fog, migraines/chronic headaches, increased pain sensitivity, or a general feeling of uneasiness. Because we are so adaptable, we often simply learn to cope and accept these changes as the new normal, or are hopeful they will resolve on their own. Given sufficient rest, recuperation and support, these symptoms may self-correct, especially if you have a history of a regulated nervous system (I.e. Grew up with loving, supportive and regulated/balanced caregivers, who taught how to self-soothe in healthy ways, etc.). However, for many if not most of us, obtaining professional support is optimal to help settle the nervous system before another stressful event occurs and tips the balance of an already full nervous system toward symptoms of depression.