Last year, I went through a lot of things that when all put together I believe pushed me over the edge into full-blown depression. Yeah, it’s probably not something I should publicize or list on my curriculum vitae but it happened and it happens to a lot of people, so I want to learn more about it. Basically I went through what psychologist used to call a mental breakdown and I wish they still called it that because I think it’s more accurate than simply applying the generic “depression” label to something that felt like, well, a mental breakdown, because that’s what it was.
As someone who has studied natural ecosystems and the balance required to keep them functioning properly, I’m aware of what is called a trophic cascade. This happens when a keystone species is removed from an ecosystem and everything starts to go to heck. Wolves are such a species and if you’ve ever studied the ecology of Yellowstone you’d know that after wolves were removed, things went haywire for many, many species. Many species simply couldn’t live there anymore. When wolves were reintroduced, the ecosystem, over a relatively short period of time, was again able to support a far greater diversity of plants and wildlife. There’s also tipping points in ecosystems, in which, if things are pushed too far, the ecosystem will shift into an entirely different state. According to a study appearing in PNAS, tipping points are also possible with the human mind.
A critical slowing down, according to the study is thought to precede depression. Though depression has been studied extensively, recognizing the process or conditions that produce depression hasn’t been and this is what the study focuses on. Basically it is asserted that a chain of emotional events and situations lead to depression. For example, stress can lead to negative emotions, which lead to insomnia, which leads to a reduced ability to experience pleasure. It eventually becomes a vicious cycle. A person feels stressed out and tired so they engage in less activities, engaging in less activities makes them feel more isolated, being isolated leads to more stress, more stress leads to increased mental and physical problems, and yada, yada, yada.
So, recognizing the symptoms and conditions earlier in the chain of events may help prevent the onset of major depression and that is the whole point of the study. The authors hope to help devise a system that will catch the symptoms early so people and/or their doctors can recognize that they are approaching a tipping point and hopefully avert depression altogether. And depression is something you want to avert. Besides the fact that it makes you feel lousy, it’s also nothing to dismiss is a minor condition. Depression leads to poor choices, a reduced a quality of life, physical health issues, and in some cases even suicide. Depression can be deadly.
I actually stumbled across this study doing research for natural ecosystems but I was intrigued by it because I recognized that what I went through was much like what the study had discussed. I wasn’t perfectly okay one day and then woke up the next in a deep depression. There were events, situations, thoughts and emotions that preceded my bout with depression. And that leads to another important implication of the study. If we can recognize the chain of events that lead to depression then we might be able to uncover the chain of events that would lead people out, kind of like reintroducing wolves into an ecosystem that’s struggling in their absence.
It’s an interesting study to read through, and like all research more research needs to be performed but I think the authors of the study are on to something that might help prevent and treat depression.
Read the entire study at: http://www.pnas.org/content/111/1/87.full