As we sat in my favourite coffee shop, discussing what to write this week, my boyfriend and I got into a conversation about what the difference between passive faith and active optimism are. At first I agreed with him that putting positive thinking and optimism into daily actions will have better results than just hoping the universe will work itself out. Take Ownership of Your Life; reads just like a best selling self-help book.
Then I suddenly got angry, because I realized I was playing right into a stigma-loaded idea by agreeing with him on this one. Having a mood disorder, for example, is not a question of positive thinking or lack thereof. There is no direct correlation between the amount of effort a depressed person puts into their life or goals and their level of mental health. The whole point is that depression robs us on a chemical level of our ability to be positive, to feel joy, to be optimistic. Later I found out he was trying to get me to write about this all along… sneaky.
As far as the guys in the white coats know (and if they were being honest they would tell you they don’t actually know much), depression is linked to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is the chemical produced in the brain that helps us feel pleasure; it facilitates communication between pleasurable memories or stimuli and our emotional responses. It is linked to every positive feeling you’ll ever have; you’ll get a burst when you kiss a cute boy or eat a great pizza.
There are other important neurotransmitters connected to pleasure too, such as dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. There is a mountain of research into how each of these chemicals react to outside forces as well as imbalances of each other. Many doctors disagree on the details, but we know these are the guys we like and the ones depressed people lack.
In simple, non-medical journal terms, depression is the physical illness that results when the production and processing of serotonin is interrupted and stunted inside your brain. When serotonin transmitters and receivers are not functioning properly, your sleep, appetite, sexual function, memory and everything else great in life never gets communicated to your pleasure centre as something to enjoy. Depression feels like an emptiness of emotion or even a complete lack of reaction to activities or situations that used to give you joy; it is much more than everyday sadness. It is scarier than that, and far more frustrating.
Everyone experiences serotonin depletion and its effects differently. New research shows that this may explain why women have higher rates of mood disorders than men. Apparently, men process their serotonin deficiencies by losing impulse control, often resulting in disorders such as ADHD and addictions, while women usually process their deficiencies as mood or anxiety disorders. According to the World Health Organization, the rates of depression are twice as high in women, and alcohol dependence is twice as high in men.
So the next time you feel the need to tell a mood disorder patient to look on the bright side, ask yourself if it would be helpful to tell a diabetic person to re-think the way they process fruit. Depression isn’t about pulling your socks up or finding the silver lining, it is about a physical chemical imbalance. Medication, exercise and smart food choices help more than motivational posters ever will.
About Sarah Lindsay
Sarah Lindsay is in her mid-twenties and lives in Toronto with her boyfriend and their dog (who also has some anxiety issues). Sarah was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2005 at the age of 16 and is still trying to figure it out. Follow Sarah’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds Blog, or additionally you can follow her on Twitter, Facebook or check out her new website: SarahsMoods.com