Fighting Depression: This Causes the Same Changes in the Brain as Antidepressants

When depression latches on, it settles in and rearranges you to get a better grip. You stop loving the things you loved. You stop looking forward to anything. You feel hopeless and you feel sad.

In the Western world, 1 in 10 people will suffer depression during the course of their life. It has more of an effect on physical health than diabetes or arthritis.

Traditionally, antidepressants have been a treatment of choice for depression but in the largest evidence based study ever, researchers have found that sport and physical activity trigger changes in the brain that could only otherwise be achieved through antidepressants.

At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Bern in Switzerland reported, ‘Studies comparing exercise with medication as a treatment for depression showed that the efficiency of antidepressant medication is comparable to the effects of elevated physical activity.’

An abundance of research has shown that sport and physical activity have a positive effect on depression but now we are closer to knowing why.

Exercise causes the same changes in the brain as antidepressants by:

  • influencing the brain’s capacity to absorb serotonin (a chemical in the brain thought to be responsible for, among other things, mood regulation);
  • reducing the activity of the stress hormones;
  • stimulating the growth of new cells in the brain;
  • preventing the death of nerve cells in the hippocampus which is otherwise caused by depression.

By its very nature, depression stifles the desire to be active. The more depressed a person is, the less likely he or she will feel like doing anything. However, there is overwhelming evidence that doing some sort of physical activity has the capacity to turn depression around.

As for how long or how often to exercise, the literature draws a very broad brush, but try for at least 20 to 30 minutes five times a week. If it can be done outside, even better. Research has found an association between depression and a lack of  Vitamin D (found in sunlight). (For more information see here).

If someone close to you has depression, simply telling them to exercise won’t work. It will be like telling someone with the flu to get excited about lunch. They won’t have it in them. Instead, let them know you’re going for a walk and you want them to come along too. Organise a catch up – a couple of times a week if you can – and do something active together. A 30 minute brisk walk will do. For more information on supporting someone with depression, see here.

The very nature of depression means that hopelessness settles in like a heavy fog and it can be difficult – sometimes it feels impossible – to see a way out. Don’t confuse the symptom of hopelessness for the reality that depression can be treated. It’s a physical illness and it’s treatable. For more severe depression, antidepressants may also be important but even when medication has been prescribed, incorporating exercise into a daily routine will make a difference.. Advances in understanding depression are being made all the time. Don’t be slow to seek help. It’s an illness like any other and sometimes it needs a push in the form of medication to move it along. 

The body and the mind don’thave to agree. They often won’t. If you’re depressed, the last thing you will probably feel like doing is exercising, but pushing through the resistance and doing some form of exercise each day will make a difference.

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One of our rituals was in the week before Christmas, we’d go shopping and each kiddo would choose a keepsake decoration for the tree. This would forever be their decoration. To make sure we’d remember who owned what (a year is a long time!) I wrote their name and year on the box. The idea is that when they leave home, they’ll have a collection of special decorations for their own tree, plump with throwbacks (‘Oh I remember when we bought this!).

Then of course there was Christmas morning. Santa would leave a note on the table and bootprints on the front path, which smelled remarkably like talcum powder. So magical the way the snow was under the boot and never melted, even in an Australian summer! But that’s the magic of Christmas, right?!

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
We're having a sale! For a limited time, books and plushies are 25% off. 

Because sales are the best, and Christmas is the best, and helping kiddos find their brave is the very best of all! So, to celebrate the end of the year (because truly, it's been a year hasn't it), and to help you settle brave hearts for next year, or night times, or separations, or, you know, all the things, we're taking 25% off books and plushies in the Hey Sigmund shop.

There's no need to enter a code. The books and bundles are already marked with their special sale prices. You'll find them all there - plushies, books, bundles - doing shopping cartwheels, beside themselves excited about helping your young ones feel bigger than anxiety, and shimmy on to brave. 
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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