How Clinical Depression Affects The Brain

Individuals living with clinical depression don’t recover from their feelings of hopelessness and sadness as easily. This is because clinical depression can physically change the brain. Here’s how.

More than 250 million people around the world live with some form of depression. The mental disorder, which primarily affects individuals’ moods, can also change how people feel, think, and act. But that’s not all. Research shows that depression can also affect the brain.

Even though the brain is only about 3 pounds, the mind is arguably the most important organ in the human body. The brain controls thoughts, memories, emotions, senses, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, hunger, and every other process that regulates the body. Depression can affect how the brain regulates these functions. When left untreated, repeated episodes of depression can physically change the brain and interfere with brain functionality. Luckily, professional treatment programs can help treat depression, restore brain functionality, and help improve individuals’ mental health and wellbeing.

What Is Clinical Depression?

Most people refer to depression as a mood disorder, but clinical depression is actually a psychological condition that affects much more than the way an individual feels. In fact, clinical depression can impact an individual’s ability to function entirely. Individuals experiencing clinical depression typically lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. In addition to feeling hopeless for extended periods of time, individuals living with clinical depression have difficulty working, studying, and interacting with others. They often report that they “don’t feel like themselves anymore.”

Clinical depression can look different from person to person, but most individuals diagnosed with the condition experience symptoms that typically include:

  • Feeling sad, empty, or hopeless
  • Angry outbursts, irritability, or frustration over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all activities such as hobbies, sports, sex, or spending time with family and friends
  • Feeling tired and having little to no energy
  • Sleep disturbances such as insomnia or oversleeping
  • Reduced or increased appetite
  • Feeling anxious, agitated, or restless
  • Unexplained physical discomforts such as back pain, headaches, or migraines
  • Slowed thinking, body movements, or speaking
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Trouble retaining memories
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Self-blame or fixating on past failures
  • Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, or suicide attempts

Generally, these symptoms are severe enough to affect how an individual functions daily. This often looks like difficulty completing tasks at work, home, or school and trouble maintaining healthy social interaction. When symptoms persist for at least 2 weeks, individuals may be officially diagnosed with clinical depression.

How Does Clinical Depression Affect The Brain?

Even though clinical depression largely affects how an individual feels, depression is more than feeling sad. Most people feel sad from time to time. Individuals who are clinically depressed experience prolonged periods of hopelessness. One of the primary distinctions between temporarily feeling down and clinical depression is the effect each experience has on the brain.

Individuals dealing with the normal ups and downs of life may cry, feel upset, and avoid friends and family for temporary periods of time. They might even sleep in or stay up all night. But ultimately, their ability to function, complete tasks, and maintain responsibilities remains the same. They bounce back from their sadness and their brain, for the most part, remains mostly unaffected.

Individuals living with clinical depression, however, don’t recover from their feelings of hopelessness and sadness as easily. Their symptoms can linger for weeks, months, or years. They struggle to function like they once did. Even managing small tasks and responsibilities can become difficult. This is because clinical depression can physically change the brain, the body’s command center.

Research shows that clinical depression can in fact:

  • Shrink the brain
  • Cause brain inflammation
  • Reduce oxygen levels in the brain

1. The Brain Shrinks

Studies show that people with clinical depression tend to have shrinkage in certain regions of the brain. Even though researchers debate which regions of the brain appear to be most affected, data consistently shows an association between clinical depression and shrinkage in the following areas of the brain:

  • Hippocampus, which plays an important role in learning and memory. The hippocampus also helps regulate emotions and stress hormones. As depression starts to affect the brain’s chemical balances, neurons in the hippocampus shrink, which can cause difficulty concentrating and memory loss. A shrunken hippocampus can also make completing familiar tasks difficult, which can lead to hopelessness, guilt, and anxiety.
  • Prefrontal cortices control impulses, adapt to challenges, process and regulate emotions, think rationally, and plan. When these areas of the brain shrink, individuals can become impulsive and easily irritated, agitated, and upset. They might also experience brain fog, trouble thinking clearly, memory loss, and difficulty making decisions.
  • Thalamus regulates sleep, alertness, and wakefulness. A shrunken thalamus has trouble maintaining a healthy sleep pattern, which often affects an individual’s appetite and wellbeing.

Generally, the amount of shrinkage that occurs depends on the severity and amount of time an individual experiences depression.

2. Brain Inflammation

Clinical depression can also inflame the brain. Experts aren’t 100% sure if inflammation causes depression or vice versa, but studies have shown a connection between the amount of time an individual has been depressed and the level of inflammation in the brain. Clinical depression seems to have a particular inflammatory effect on the amygdala.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped gland that influences whether individuals feel pleasure or fear. The high levels of cortisol released during a depressive episode inflame the amygdala causing the gland to become hyperactive and enlarged. When this happens, individuals can experience disrupted sleep patterns, social anxiety, restlessness, guilt, panic, and self-blame. Brain inflammation can also cause brain cell death. This can lead to further brain shrinkage and decreased neurotransmitter function. Brain inflammation can also make the brain less neuroplastic, or capable of changing. New brain cells stop growing. Older brain cells incur damage and die, causing the entire brain to age faster.

Brain inflammation also slows down firing between neurons. The overall operation of the brain slows down. Individuals’ thinking becomes slow and fuzzy. They feel fatigued and irritable. Their energy levels become dull and they move slowly. Inflammatory immune cells called cytokines interfere with serotonin levels, affecting individuals’ ability to feel joy.

3. Reduced Oxygen Levels

Clinical depression has also been linked to reduced oxygen in the body. This is a medical condition called hypoxia. When the brain doesn’t get the amount of oxygen it needs to function properly, brain cells can die. In fact, brain cells begin dying with 5 minutes of oxygen loss. At first, individuals might experience:

  • Inattentiveness
  • Poor judgment
  • Temporary memory loss
  • Trouble moving parts of the body

The longer individuals don’t have proper oxygen levels, the more severe the symptoms can become. Severe symptoms of hypoxia typically include:

  • Coma
  • Seizure
  • Brain death

Brain-Focused Care For Clinical Depression

Here at StoneRidge and Pronghorn Psychiatry, we know how devastating clinical depression can be on the brain. But we also know that the brain is neuroplastic, or capable of changing. Our treatment programs can help treat depression and heal the brain. Our innovative, evidence-based programs can help you regain your zest for life. Let us help you get there. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

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qEEG/Brain Mapping
Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients' brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.

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Neurofeedback
This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

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Spravato Therapy
We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

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Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

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Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)
Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

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Individual Therapy
Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

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Group/Family Therapy
Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space. .
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