Biological and Cognitive Aspects of Depression

It’s mid semester break, and I’m meant to be catching up on all of my readings for my subjects, but it’s tough.  One of my subjects, Psychopathology and Models of Intervention requires 6-8 hours of reading per week (with 6 weeks worth of reading so far) and I can’t seem to stay focused for that long and retain the knowledge.

All week I’ve been trying to wade through the readings on depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, suicide and schizophrenia.  It’s rather bleak, and every now and then I’ve had to take breaks to go out in the sunshine and workout at the gym.

But I figure another good way to procrastinate… I mean.. get perspective, is to share some information here.  So here are some things I’ve learned about depression.

Cognitive Aspects

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that depression is as a result of cognitive processes – so the way we think and perceive the world.

A precursor to depression is a tendency to think negatively about life, and to interpret daily events in a negative manner e.g. imagining the worst in every situation.  As this occurs more and more often, it starts to become a  negative schema .  A schema is a framework or template of thoughts, opinions, values, ideas, etc. that allow us to interpret situations quicker.  So if we have a an unpleasant upbringing, or experience a lot of negative events, over time we might develop a negative schema about ourselves, other people or the world around us.

When this negative self talk is coupled with the belief that we’re a failure and that there’s no hope for improvement, we can fall into the trap of learned helplessness.  The theory of learned helplessness has been observed in animals as well as people who (through experience) perceive they have no control over their lives.  So animals that are punished for no reason, at unknown times, without any opportunity to improve their situation have been found to just give up.  The same has been found in people – if they feel that the bad things will happen to them irrespective of what they do, they lose hope.

So although this wasn’t covered in the textbook – the key thing I took away from this is that, coupled with neural plasticity (the theory that our brain continues to develop throughout life, new connections between neurons form and existing ones strengthen as a result of our experiences and thought processes), it is important to build positive schemas and consciously stop yourself ruminating negatively.

Studies mentioned in my textbook (Alloy & Abramson, 2006; Alloy, Abramson, Safford, & Gibb, 2006; Abela & Skitch, 2007; Haeffel & Hames, 2013) demonstrated that people with negative schemas (i.e. dysfunctional attitudes_ are 12 times more likely to suffer a depressive episode than those who have a more positive or realistic attitude, and this poor cognitive bias is contagious – if you live with someone who thinks negatively, it is likely to rub off.

Biological Aspects

Okay so there are actually a lot of biological factors involved in depression and mood disorders (including genetics, hormones and the endocrine system), but I’m sharing this one because it was news to me and it fits in with my strongly held belief that exercise is good for mental health.

Depression is linked with high levels of cortisol, which is called the stress hormone (it is released during stressful situations, so fight/flight, and alongside this our autonomic nervous system prepares us to respond, and our immune system is dampened).  High levels of cortisol for long periods of time has been found to cause a reduction in volume of the hippocampus.  A smaller hippocampus region has been found in people suffering from depression and those at higher risk of having a depressive episode.

The key thing is…

  • Some studies have found that the effects might be able to be reversed by increasing the volume of the hippocampus.
  • One way of increasing volume of the hippocampus found in experiments with rats is exercise.

What makes me sad is that this is a catch 22 – side effects of depression include fatigue and learned helplessness, so it’s unlikely people suffering from depression will actually become active.  But I think if therapists combine CBT (cognitve behavioural therapy – helping clients change their schemas) alongside physical activity, it would be hugely beneficial.

Every psychology student knows that you have to take a holisitic view when helping people, (i.e. consider the biological, social and psychological factors), but I wonder how therapists can help clients get physically active when therapy is restricted to the clinician’s room.

Reference:

Barlow, D. H., Durand, V. M., & Stewart, S. H. (2014). Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach. Toronto: Nelson Education

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