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Depression and Anxiety: Help and Treatment

A Practical Guide to Feeling Good

A different reason to exercise: pump up your brain

You’ve probably heard the advice that exercise is good for your depression and anxiety symptoms. That advice probably came from a chipper, fit person who looks like he’s never been depressed a day in his life.

When you are suffering from depression and anxiety, getting enough exercise seems like the least of your worries. You have enough trouble trying to make it through each day. It’s also hard to find the motivation to exercise when you are depressed.

But exciting new research into the effects of exercise on the brain may give you a different reason to consider exercising regularly. Not only can regular exercise improve your mood and calm you down in the short-term, it may also be your best bet for undoing the damage that stress and depression can cause to your brain.

Stress shrinks your hippocampus

What’s in the heck is a hippocampus? Since when do animals go to college? (groan!)

According to Wikipedia1:

The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other mammals. It belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in long-term memory and spatial navigation.

So the hippocampus is involved in forming memories, among other things.

According to the book Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Dr. John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman, a little bit of stress can help you to form memories by activating the hippocampus. After the stress has passed, your brain stores the memory during this recovery period.

Think of how your emotional reaction to some major tragedy, such as hearing about the horrible 9/11 attacks, cemented that event into your mind forever. This is an evolutionary adaptation that helps you to remember dangerous, stress-inducing situations, and hopefully avoid them in the future. Emotion makes a memory more…uh, memorable.

That is all fine and good for the occasional encounter with a saber-toothed cat. But chronic stress, which is an arguably unnatural condition, exposes your brain to stress hormones for far too long without a break. This eventually causes brain cells to disconnect from their neighboring cells, wither, and die.

How depressing.

Scientists have come up with some pretty convincing evidence that severe depression and chronic stress can cause damage to the hippocampus, which causes it to shrink2. In some cases, the hippocampus was found to be nearly 20% smaller in people with severe depression!

The amount of shrinkage was greater the longer a person was depressed. That’s a very good reason not to let your depression and anxiety go untreated for too long. It’s not just hard on your heart and soul, but on your brain as well.

The size of your hippocampus counts–you too, ladies

A smaller hippocampus is associated with slower rates of learning, poorer memory, and it messes with your ability to deal with and properly react to stressful situations.

According to Spark!, which does a good job of explaining the science behind all this, when we are under a large amount of stress our hippocampus is overwhelmed by stress hormones. The result is that we have a lot harder time remembering things we ought to, such as where the fire extinguisher is when a kitchen fire suddenly breaks out.

We also tend to focus too intently on the stress itself, and block out everything else. You probably won’t remember what color pants you were wearing a week after that kitchen fire.

The Good News

Keep in mind that the reference where I got the 20% shrinkage figure from was written in 2001. Those were the dark ages in terms of what science now knows about the brain’s ability to continue growing, That article was just the beginning of a whole new understanding of the brain.

In the past, scientists thought that once a person became an adult, new brain cells, or neurons, were no longer formed. In fact, aging was seen as a slow but steady loss of precious neurons.

If you read Spark!, or sample any of the current research into neurogenesis, i.e. the (re)growth of neurons, it turns out that it is not only possible for new neurons to sprout throughout your lifetime, but you can stimulate this growth by taking certain medications3 and…by exercising.

Your brain is a garden. Exercise is like applying fertilizer.

It turns out that exercise releases a bunch of chemicals with long names such as: brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), and fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2).

Notice the words “growth factor” being repeated there? That means that these natural chemicals all work to encourage the growth of new neurons, like Miracle-Gro, to borrow the analogy used by the authors of Spark!. The hippocampus is one place where they are quite sure that this growth happens.

Take a second to consider what that means:

Exercise can reverse the damage caused by stress and depression.

This is huge!

Mental disorders are so frustrating, because you can’t see them, you can’t take a bloodtest for them, so people still act like they are some kind of imaginary brain cooties even in the 21st century, for goodness sake.

Knowing that there are real changes that occur in your brain because of these illnesses–at least according to the best evidence–gives us tangible proof that mental disorders are real diseases, and they need to be taken just as seriously.

It’s not your fault that it took this long for science to start finding evidence for what we knew all along. This is cutting edge research we’re talking about. It turns out that we didn’t know everything there was to know about something like plain-old exercise.

So what kind of exercise should I be doing?

There isn’t yet a system of prescribing exercises to treat depression and anxiety, but it seems that moderately difficult aerobic exercise is the best for fertilizing your wilted, neural garden. You want to get your heart rate up and breathe a bit harder.

The thing is, most people aren’t ready to start running or doing heavy activity, so it might be good to start with walking. Walk as slow or as fast as you like, and see if you can do it for at least 15 minutes. If you can only handle 5-10 minutes at first, that’s fine. The fact that you got out the door and did it is a major accomplishment when you’re very ill.

Try to make a habit of walking every day, at about the same time. That way it can become a part of your routine, and will add some structure to your day. Your body will also get used to it, and you may even feel your body telling you that it’s time for your daily walk.

I’ll leave it up to you to see where you might take it from there. Slow jogging is not too hard after you can walk 30-45 minutes at a time. You can always jog a little, walk a little, jog a little, etc. Lots of people do that, actually. You don’t have to be able to bust out a 2-mile run to enjoy a little jogging.

Riding a bike, swimming, and roller-skating/blading are good because they make you feel like a kid. I sure hope you had some good times as a kid doing some of these activities. If not, it’s never too late to start.






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