Through our SPECT imaging work, we have found that when the deep limbic system is overactive, it lends itself to mood-related problems, especially depression. We’ve also observed that depressive symptoms can arise when the brain has low activity which can be caused by injury from events such as concussions, infection, a loss of oxygen and exposure to toxins.
Knowing the underlying brain biology of a person’s depressive symptoms is a key to efficiently targeting treatment. This is why we actually look at our patients’ brain function.
Whether medication is warranted or not, I rarely take a single prong approach; there are some simple yet powerful lifestyle strategies that can be really helpful in reducing depressive symptoms. I will describe 2 of them here:
1. Exercise: It’s the single most important thing to do when feeling depressed, yet for some, just thinking about it can seem overwhelming. When I use the term exercise, I mean physical activity of almost any sort, and one of the simplest for able-bodied individuals is to go for a walk. You don’t have to walk 5 miles; just get outside (or on a treadmill) and start walking— even if all you can muster the energy for is walking around the block. Remember, baby steps take you forward! Work up to 15 minutes, and then 30 – 45 minutes over time.
With exercise, your brain releases “feel good” chemicals that help with a sense of well-being. In fact, a study that compared antidepressant medication with exercisefound that both therapies were equally effective after sixteen weeks, and after ten months, exercise was actually more effective.
Plus, it has no adverse side effects!
2. Identify and Kill the “ANTs” – the Automatic Negative Thoughts that Wreck Your Day
ANTs are the negative thoughts that automatically pop into your head, causing you to get upset, depressed, anxious or just feel plain miserable. There are 9 species (or types) of ANTs:
#1 All or nothing thinking – also known as black and white thinking
#2 “Always” thinking – using words like, always, never, no one, everyone, every time and everything
#3 Focusing on the negative – selectively seeing only the bad in a situation and disregarding the good things that occur
#4 Fortune telling – predicting the worst possible outcome to situations
#5 Mind reading – believing that you know what another person is thinking even though he or she hasn’t told you
#6 Thinking with your feelings – happens when you believe your feelings and don’t question them– even when there is no evidence to support how you feel
#7 Guilt beatings – thinking with words like should, must, ought and have to
#8 Labeling – calling yourself or someone else a derogatory name diminishes your ability to see situations clearly
#9 Blaming – when you don’t take responsibility for your actions, you lose your power to make changes
To overcome automatic negative thoughts, you first must become aware of the dialogue in your head. Once you identify an ANT, write it down, identify it and then kill it (challenge it) by writing down a more realistic version of the same thought. For example:
- ANT: No one will ever want to date me
- ANT species: “Always” thinking
- Kill the ANT: That really isn’t true. I can meet people by putting myself in new social situations