Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted the results of a study that found approximately 1 in 10 adults in the United States report suffering from depression. Depression is a condition that is bad enough on its own, but can have negative effects on other conditions, too. According to the CDC, “Depression can adversely affect the course and outcome of common chronic conditions, such as arthritis, asthma, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.”
Many people suffer through depression untreated. This can lead to problems at work, problems with family life, loss of friends, etc. It can even lead to death. I suffered through a period of depression after my youngest child was born and spent weeks in the NICU. It was a very challenging time.
Those who do treat their depression may turn to therapy, but in recent years patients have been more likely to turn to medications. There are a number of anti-depressant medications on the market, and people as young as elementary school kids have been prescribed medication to help deal with feelings of depression that do not go away on their own.
Recent research from Stanford University suggests that there may be another way to treat depression. In a study of girls age 10 to 14 who were not diagnosed as suffering from depression yet, but who were at higher risk of developing depression because of their family history, researchers found that positive thinking could help them reduce the effects of stimuli which caused negative reactions in the brain.
Reading about the study, I was reminded of all the movie scenes where a person goes into hysterics or dissolves into a crying fit at just the wrong time and the hero has to shake them around a bit and yell, “Snap out of it!”
The researchers at Stanford showed the girls in the study pictures that would produce a negative reaction in their amygdala, an emotional center of the brain. The girls were able to see results of an MRI scan showing changes in that part of the brain when they reacted to the upsetting pictures. Depressed people often react more strongly to an upsetting stimulus than others, and that can lead to an episode of depression.
Researchers sought to decrease the overreaction to the upsetting stimuli by asking the girls to think positive thoughts and change the image on the MRI. Each girl thought of happy things, like puppies, and was able to reduce the reaction in her amygdala. The girls learned how to control their physical responses in the brain with only their mind, and even after a follow up were still able to use this technique to overcome negative reactions to upsetting images.
No one is saying the answer to depression is to just cheer up, but patients with a known tendency toward depressive episodes may be able to train their brains to respond differently to stimuli that could send them into depression. Imagine being able to stop, recognize that something is upsetting you more than it should, and think happy thoughts to dial back your reaction. If patients could learn to master this technique, it could greatly improve their quality of life.
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