Now think for a second. Suppose you are gored by an elephant. You may feel a certain absence of pleasure afterward, maybe a sense of grief. Throw in a little psychomotor retardation – you’re not as eager for your calisthenics as usual. Sleeping and feeding may be disrupted, glucocorticoid levels may be a bit on the high side. Sex may lose its appeal for a while. Hobbies are not as enticing; you don’t jump up to go out with friends; you pass up that all-you-can-eat buffet. Sound like some of the symptoms of depression?
Now, what happens during a depression? You think a thought about your mortality or that of a loved one; you imagine children in refugee camps, the rain forests disappearing and endless species of life evaporating, late Beethoven string quartets, and suddenly you experience some of the same symptoms as after being gored by the elephant. On an incredibly simplistic level, you can think of depression as occurring when your cortex thinks an abstract negative thought and manages to convince the rest of the brain that this is as real as a physical stressor. In this view, people with chronic depressions are those whose cortex habitually whispers sad thoughts to the rest of the brain.
Robert Sapolsky has, once again, hit the nail on the head in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Granted, this excerpt would not generally fit into the “happy” category. Today, it tops the list.
The good Dr. Sapolsky has illuminated a connection between stress and depression that we all may intuitively know but can’t quite articulate. After reading this passage last night, re-reading, it, then going back for thirds, something clicked into alignment. The mind (and thus, the body) cannot differentiate between actual threats and psychological ones. The stress to the system is the same. A psychological battering wears on the brain and the body’s limbic, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, and other systems in much the same way as being gored by an elephant. Throughout his chapters, Sapolsky demonstrates the ways the burst of activity in response to a threat or injury is a survival mechanism for all of us in the animal kingdom, and that the eventual removal of the stressor returns the body and mind to a more centered state. The elephant thunders off into the brush, after all, and the wounds heal. Alas, the cognitive stressor is not so distractable. Ruminating on worst-case scenarios just keeps on digging at the ol’ gut. Enter the long-term health problems stage right. Yes, there is depression, falling into step between hypertention and heart disease.
So, what is a person with perennial despair to do? Suggestions abound, but first is this: notice that stress is created within the mind.
Quit running. Quit covering your head. Quit nursing imaginary wounds.
You can take a breath and even rest easy for the moment.
You are safe.
There is no elephant.
Sapolsky, Robert. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.