It’s NOT all in your head
Fifty percent of us will experience it some time in our lives.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, 12 percent of patients seen in a primary care office have it.
It occurs in children, adolescents, adults and the elderly.
Both men and women are affected, although women have nearly twice the risk as men do.
18 million people in the U.S. each year develop it. That is nearly 1 in 10 individuals.
What is it? Depression.
I often relate depression to a sore throat. Both are medical illnesses caused by a dysfunction of specific body systems. While the origin of a sore throat is in throat of course, and depression in the brain, both disorders have far-reaching consequences.
Remarkably, both may also cause fatigue, malaise, disturbed sleep and changes in appetite. Like a sore throat, not everyone with depression needs medical attention. Brief mild symptoms may be self-treated with exercise, lifestyle changes, social interactions and a wide variety of other things. The treatments may be as unique as the individual and their symptoms.
If symptoms persist or worsen, like a sore throat that won’t go away, you may need medical attention. Extending our analogy further, not everyone seeking medical attention needs medication. At the right time, in the right circumstances, however, medication may be essential in getting better.
Why medication? Because it can be very effective in treating the symptoms of depression. It is not unusual for the presenting symptoms of depression to be anywhere but in our head! At its most basic, the symptoms of depression are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.
Just like our brains use electrical impulses to move our muscles, certain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, in our brain are responsible for our moods, feelings and all the physical symptoms associated with them. The two most important of these chemicals are called serotonin and norepinephrine. Most anti-depressant medications restore healthy balances of one or both of these neurotransmitters.
Wishing or “thinking” away a serious depression then might be akin to wishing away strep throat.
Oftentimes, prior to a recommendation to take medication, and frequently side by side with that recommendation comes one for counseling. While there is no denying the help and support offered by family and friends, more serious problems require professional help.
The options are extensive. Many clergy have training in treating depression and are an excellent resource. Students of all ages can initially turn to their school counselors, who can provide support and direction. Professional help comes in specifically trained individuals usually with professional degrees and licenses.
How can you tell if you’re at risk? The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force lists a positive response to the following two questions as putting you at sufficient risk to seek further medical attention:
1) Over the past two weeks, have you ever felt down, depressed or hopeless?
2) Have you felt little interest or pleasure in doing things?
Those two questions strike at the heart of depression. That is, an unpleasant change in how we feel, accompanied by a change in our behavior. More specific symptoms might include:
Feeling sad or crying a lot.
Losing interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy (including sex).
Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless.
Thinking about death or suicide.
Sleeping too much, or too little (having insomnia).
Losing your appetite and losing weight without a reason, or eating too much and gaining weight.
Feeling very tired physically and/or mentally.
Having trouble paying attention and making decisions.
Having aches and pains that don’t get better with treatment.
Another way I often think about depression is like watching your hair grow. Look in the mirror today and then closely again tomorrow. Amazingly, everything looks the same! Nevertheless, there have been changes. Ever so slightly your hair has grown (about 1/120th of an inch). Human eyes just aren’t keen enough to notice the difference. A month later, however, and sure enough, it is time for a haircut.
Depression is a subtle foe. It too, comes on slowly. Day by day it takes over, yet it is a struggle to notice. In a similar fashion, treatment comes slowly, too. There are no overnight cures. What is important is that if you keep looking forward and getting the help you need, that light at the end of the tunnel will surely grow brighter!
A good resource for information about depression as well as a host of other topics is http://www.familydoctor.org/. This site is supported by the American Academy of Family Physicians and provides reliable medical information when you need it!
Remember your health is your responsibility! Health is our greatest asset and it doesn’t happen by accident. If something doesn’t seem right, or questions are left unanswered don’t wait, call your doctor.
Dr. Drew Werner writes a weekly column for the Daily. Write him c/o Editor, Vail Daily, by e-mail to email@example.com or P.O. Box 81, Vail, 81658.