Clinical Depression, broken down

Depression is known for its unfortunate ability to “override” any good thought that decides to come our way. Even if there is evidence in our lives supporting the fact that we shouldn’t be having depressive thoughts, our minds still find a way to push that logic to the side. With major depression affecting so many aspects of our lives from sleeping all day, to being reclusive, to suicidal thoughts, it’s almost hard to believe that all of these symptoms stem from a simple glitch in brain chemistry.

Unlike some mental illnesses such as Parkinson’s Disease, clinical depression affects multiple areas of the brain as opposed to just one. In a nutshell, depression stems from abnormalities in the interactions between hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, such as the ones controlling serotonin and dopamine regulation. In order to understand why brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine are important in the diagnosis of clinical depression, it’s important to understand what they actually do.

Serotonin is thought to regulate sleep, pain sensitivity, sexual function, and appetite. Looking at some of the symptoms of depression, including sleeping for long periods of time (or not at all), overeating, or loss of ability to perform sexually, it’s no surprise that serotonin plays a big role in regulating depression. However, depression symptoms are not caused by a serotonin deficiency, but rather by the neurotransmitters in the brain being hypo responsive (under-responsive) to the serotonin provided to them.

Dopamine is known as being the “happy” chemical. It’s responsible for regulating motor function, reward and motivation centers, memory, and attention. Even more symptoms of depression include loss of motivation, loss of interest in things that once excited you, and a feeling of sluggishness. On the flipside of serotonin receptors, the neurotransmitters responsible for receiving dopamine are hyper responsive, basically overreacting to stress and fear stimuli.

neurotransmitters depressionThese hypo and hyper reactive receptors can be caused by a multitude of reasons, from excess stress to overeating. While genetics can certainly play a role in the risk of developing depression, it’s only about half that of the risk stemming from individual lifestyle factors. Of course, depression can stem from a combination of the two as well.

anatomy of depressionThis is another fact that makes clinical depression unique among many illnesses. While many diseases are purely genetic (you have to be born with the right makeup of genes, chemicals, etc.), depression affects us physiologically even if we aren’t born with it. Regardless of the cause, chemicals in the brain are put all out of whack.

So…why does any of this even matter? If you’re sad, you’re sad, who cares about the brain chemistry, right? It matters, because understanding the brain chemistry has played a big part in recent years in our understanding and treatment of depression. If you were to go back in time 50 years and tell someone that you’re depressed, chances are you’d get a response somewhere along the lines of “you’ll get over it soon.” 50 years ago, most people weren’t worried about the causes of depression, simply because most people weren’t worried about depression. Depression has been “diagnosed” in many individuals since the time of Mesopotamia (its original name is melancholia), but understanding it as an actual medical problem didn’t come until much later. If an individual was feeling depressed, it was considered nothing more than “being in a funk.” Everyone feels sad sometimes, why should we pay any more attention to people who feel sad a bit more often? Now, knowing what we know about brain chemistry and physiology, we’ve finally come to the realization that depression is an actual, medical problem, and it is worthy of our time and attention. Through our new understanding, we are more equipped than ever to deal with it.

depression wheel
A small correction to this graph: under Situations, as aforementioned, a bullet point should say “genetics.”

For me, nothing says it better: “Depression is a flaw in chemistry, not character.” Flaw is such a key word here, as depression has the ability to make anybody dealing with it feel like a flaw of life. I’m dumb, I’m ugly, I’m sad, I’m flawed. No, you are not flawed. You are as much of a person as anyone else, worthy of feeling happiness, joy, and love; a slight mix-up of brain chemicals doesn’t change that simple (yet irrefutable) fact.

We live in a time where we’re lucky enough to have, at the very least, a rudimentary understanding of clinical depression and its causes. By understanding the root of depression, we’re that much closer to finding a way to cut the stem before it sprouts. If we do nothing with the information we’ve learned, combating depression (and mental health in general) will be at a standstill for far too long. As someone who suffers from clinical depression, I feel a responsibility to use what power I have to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Stay strong.

– Ryan

My fear of having fears

I often refer to my struggles with anxiety as “paralyzing,” and I’m more than certain many others feel this way about their own battles with this illness as well. When my anxiety prevents me from physically getting out of bed in the morning because I’m so fearful of facing the day, that’s paralysis. When my anxiety tells me that I shouldn’t go out with friends to some public place, because I may be put into a social situation I’m uncomfortable with, that’s paralysis. When my anxiety refuses to let me speak my mind for fear of what others may think of me, that’s paralysis.

All 0f these paralyzing things, these anxieties, stem from fears. Notice I didn’t necessarily say rational fears – in fact, 9 out of 10 of these fears are irrational. But when it comes to irrational fears, anxiety is the package deal. “If I say this thing, what will [person] think of me?” “Remember that unimportant thing that happened a week ago that made you slightly uncomfortable that everyone else has likely forgotten about? Dwell on it.” “That person gave you a look that could maybe be taken as offensive, so naturally, it means that person must hate your guts – there’s no other explanation.”

Now, I’ve said this dozens of times, but for those without anxiety: we know these fears are irrational. I, who worries about many of these things on a daily basis, can look at these as I type and say, “That fear isn’t rational.” Trust me, I know, and people with anxiety know. But the day simple logic stops an anxiety-riddled mind from thinking the way it does is the day anxiety no longer exists. This is what separates anxiety-sufferers from “normal” people who are just worrying about something: logic and the knowledge that their fear is irrational will do next to nothing to soothe their roiling thoughts.

This may unintentionally go the way of Inception, but the reasons above are precisely why I fear what fears I may have in the future. I fear my future fears. Why? Because I know, once I have this fear branded into my mind, however irrational it may be, it will be another opportunity for my anxiety to paralyze me. If my anxiety (and I do specifically mean my anxiety) determines that something is to be feared, it’s mighty hard to convince it otherwise. The very anxiety that tells us to prevent doing this thing we fear is the same thing that prevents us from seeing the irrational thought behind it. Sure, it would be great to ride that roller coaster to show our anxiety it won’t come off the rails and kill us all, but there’s no way in hell our anxiety would let us actually do that. What, the odds of you dying on an amusement park ride are 10,000 to 1? No way we’re taking those odds!

So, long story short, I fear what I will fear in the days to come, because I know that it will prevent me from experiencing so much of what life has to offer. This is one of the many reasons I’ve taken to practicing CBT and mindfulness – I refuse to let my mental illness get the better of me if I can help it.

Does anyone else feel this way? We’re so afraid of these fears being stamped into our heads, because we know what the consequences are. If anything, this post certainly argues for the quote: “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” Ain’t that right.

Stay strong.

  • Ryan

A Beginner’s Guide to Coffee Tasting

For many, there’s quite a difference between enjoying a certain coffee, and appreciating the differences and intricacies from cup to cup. If you’re interested in becoming one of the latter, a good first step is to learn how to do a proper coffee tasting. When done correctly, a coffee tasting is planned to bring out every aroma, taste, and feel of said coffee. Keep in mind that tastings should be done only with black coffee – any added sugar or cream will dilute and alter the original qualities of the coffee.

Although not required, you may get better results when tasting two different coffees side-by-side. This allows comparison between the two, allowing you to make observations based on what each coffee does or doesn’t have (i.e. Coffee A has more acidity than Coffee B, or Coffee C has a mouthfeel of [blank], while the mouthfeel of Coffee D is more akin to [blank]).

If you are just beginning coffee tastings, don’t worry when you aren’t able to pick up many differences between the coffees you taste – a more refined coffee palette comes with experience. The more coffees you taste and are able to describe, the better-equipped you’ll be to point out the differences between each.

Step 1 – Defining Aroma

sniffingcoffee

The nose can determine dozens more scents than the taste buds can pick up, so figuring out what aroma the coffee gives off is a logical first step.

After pouring the coffee, take your hand and cup in around the top lip of the cup, pressing your nose under it, creating a natural funnel for the aromas to reach your nostrils. Breathe in deep with your nose, doing your best to describe what aromas you sense. Nutty, floral, chocolaty, earthy, basil?

Step 2 – Defining Taste

best-tasting-coffee-at-grocery-store

To be honest, this step always makes me chuckle, because while teaching people how to do coffee tastings, my advice for this step is basically “be as obnoxious as possible.” When doing the actual ‘tasting’ part of a coffee tasting, slurp the coffee. Yes, slurp it! If the person next to you can’t hear your slurp, you aren’t doing it right. By slurping, the coffee is spread out all over your mouth and tongue, allowing different tastes receptors to pick up different, well, tastes. Some parts of the mouth are more akin to picking up sour tastes, others better for sweet. By allowing the coffee to spread out over your palette, you can pick up more intricacies in the taste.

Step 3 – Determining mouthfeel/body

a-simple-guide-to-becoming-a-coffee-expert-13-638

As the picture above describes, body is basically how long the coffee sits in your mouth after you swallow it, and before that, where the coffee sits in your mouth. Take a sip and swallow. After the coffee goes down your throat, where is the taste (and general overall feel) lingering in your mouth? The middle of your tongue? Tip of your tongue? Sides of your mouth? Without going into too much detail, the mouthfeel of a certain coffee is often a good indicator as to how much acidity it has. Acidic drinks, such as orange juice, are felt on the sides and tip of your tongue – acidic coffees are the same way. Also, using the picture above, what is the “thickness” of the coffee? Is it smooth or almost watery, like skim milk? Or is it closer to whole milk, leaving a slight coating on your tongue?

Again, with your first few coffee tastings, don’t expect them to go perfectly. You won’t be able to determine every intimate detail of each coffee you try, but your palette becomes more accustomed to coffee with each new one you taste. Let me know if this technique works for you, and if this is all old news to you, let me know some of the best coffees you’ve tasted! I’m always looking for new ones to try!

Happy Caffienating!

  • Ryan