Depression is a condition which a huge amount of people suffer with. It’s estimated over 300 Million people worldwide have it, and this figure is based on the World Health Organization’s statistics. These encompass what is reported. Since so many people never report their depression the actual worldwide total is likely to be far higher than 300 million.
Why are so many of us depressed?
Well, the answer could take many forms, just as depression takes many forms. Some people have lifelong depression which can be seen in different areas of the brain and impaired function. Other people suffer from bouts of depression which are tied to factors such as the seasons or life circumstances.
Despite decades of research into the condition, the exact causes of depression remain unknown. In addition, whilst many developments have been made in psychotherapy and medication such as SSRI’s, it is still unclear why some people respond well to drug-treatment for example, and others don’t.
Whichever kind of depression you might suffer from, some interesting recent research nevertheless provides some hope.
With the advent of fMRI’s (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) however, more is being discovered about depression. A recent study published in Nature Medicine scanned the brains of over 1000 people, over 40% if which had depression. The results found that different areas of the brain appear to be affected in different people with depression. The researchers delineated four different types of depression based on the scans. Amongst these four subtypes, two subtypes were related to people who experienced more fatigue as a symptom of their condition and the other two subtypes related to those who reported more issues with feeling pleasure. Studies such as these are important because they allow us to understand more about how different people experience depression differently, and underline what a complex condition it is.
The causes of depression
It has been known for some time that stress can play a role in depression, however recent studies appear to suggest that stress is only a trigger for some people to become depressed. In addition, the growing field of epigenetics, which investigate how our genetic expression is changed due to causes such as our environment and external factors, can all add clues as to why depression happens.
The picture is far from clear on what exactly is happening in the brain in the people who have depression. However, studies into the relief of symptoms or rate of recurrence of depression have shown many times that mindfulness meditation for example, lowers the rate of reported recurrence. Amongst a meta-analysis of over 47 clinical trials of people who used Mindfulness Meditation, where participants took part in an 8-week program, a reduction in anxiety, depression and pain.
How does this fit with working towards more relaxation across multiple levels? Depression is often considered to be part of the ‘dark night of the soul,’ and whilst we know that there is clearly a biological basis for it, as can be evidenced from the studies and fMRI’s available, depression often seem to have this ‘extra’ dimension. That is, an aspect which doesn’t only encompass neurological influences, but many different levels of interaction with the world.
In her talk “Depression and Spiritual Awakening” brain scientist Dr Lisa Miller talks about her experiences with what she calls a ‘spiritual depression.’ This was linked to her long-term inability to conceive a child with IVF, and her decision to consider adopting.
Over time Dr Miller discovered that the more she allowed her spiritual suffering with regards to finding her child (or conceiving naturally) to transform into allowance and love, the less she suffered. When she learned to say ‘yes’ to the voice inside her which asked her if she was on the right spiritual path, she found that wonderful new things came into her life.
Because Dr Miller found her depression to ultimately be positively transformative, she decided to conduct research into depression and spirituality.
She felt that depression could be a portal to the spiritual path, rather than a disease which only harmed. She described depression as
“A portal to a world of connection and love.”
Seen in this way she felt there were aspects of depression which were like two sides of one door. One side was a side which was destructive and the other transformative.
The Relationship Between “Spiritual Depression” and the Brain
Dr Miller and a team of researchers conducted investigations into how spirituality and depression affected the brain in people with long term depression. The team scanned the brains of those who were depressed and looked at what areas of the brain were affected.
What they found was extremely interesting. In the people who reported long term depression but had no firm spiritual beliefs, areas of the brain affected by depression seemed to grow smaller and atrophy. However, in people who reported that they had a strong spiritual path, those same areas grew, and were thicker.
In addition, Dr Miller said that in the people who were following a spiritual path but had had depression gave off an area described as ‘alpha.’ This Alpha wave resonated at the same frequency as the earth’s crust.
What does this tell us about spirituality and the mind? Well, it appears that the exploration of spirituality can be linked to a transformative experience of depression. Although the researchers couldn’t say that one caused the other, they were shown to correlate.
Dr Miller argues that depression therefore cannot always be viewed in purely a disease model. She argues that some depression might be a core component of spiritual awakening and development.
In our increasingly secular world, with many spiritual ways of thinking having been replaced by a purely mechanistic, science-based way of looking at the world, it could be that for some people depression is linked to a need to grow spiritually.
When recent research is considered, which shows the relationship between our beliefs and the way that conditions such as depression are intimately linked in our brains, it seems that science and spirituality are not as polar opposite as many people believe.
Rather they may be part of a holistic process in which we can learn to integrate several layers or aspects of our existence to reach new levels of understanding.
When we relax across the four levels, the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, we can begin to get closer to understanding how depression affects us and how we can best manage it. We cannot know if an early trauma, an issue with epigenetics, neurological responses to stress, or changes in brain connectivity is the culprit with current understanding. But what we can do is begin to look at when our symptoms are worse and how that impacts us emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.
For example, we might find that when we pay more attention to our spiritual aspects, we can integrate feelings of depression and hopelessness in a productive way. This requires that we not only examine the way we respond to an anti-depressant for example, but how our emotional states and self-awareness changes our experiences of depression.
For some people, the key to understanding their depression and how to manage it, especially when very low, ties closely with their ability to be self-aware and understand what is happening in their body and mind. A strong foundation in relaxing, across multiple levels can assist with this.
For example, we might find that the more we pay attention to our thoughts and physical experiences, the more we can tell when we need to rest, or to recharge. Or we might feel the benefit of medications more keenly.
By learning how to understand symptoms and places where we hold tension, trauma or other unresolved emotional and spiritual issues, we can often find greater acceptance, which can lead to a lessening in symptoms.
Mindfulness, a certain spiritual sensitivity and the skill of learning to relax across multiple levels therefore, can be a powerful tool in a holistic approach to depression and self-care for those suffering from this condition.
Further Reading and Studies
I’m Grace, a fallen star living in Englands blooming fields.