For a long time I have felt as though I am getting more and more stupid. I can’t think as quickly as I used to. I struggle to think of what I’m trying to say to people. I’m also extremely forgetful and my attention fades in and out, no matter how interested I am. I almost feel as though I’m a child again. Maybe I even act like a child more; I’m not too sure. But since being diagnosed with depression six years ago, it’s very clear that my mental capacity has taken a nosedive.
Why? Because depression shrinks the brain.
That’s right. The part of the brain responsible for emotion and long term memory – the hippocampus – shrinks due to depression. Studies across the globe have affirmed that the more episodes of depression a person has, the greater the reduction in the size of the hippocampus. The neurons slow down and die, and you can actually feel yourself shutting down. It’s associated with conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which is why a link between depression and dementia has been suggested. It’s terrifying.
I thought the reason I was slower at processing information and struggling to focus was due to being tired (I’m always tired), or maybe that I was always this slow deep down. This explains so much. It explains why I make so many silly little mistakes in some of my working out in maths, and why I feel so stupid all of the time. My brain isn’t working as well as it used to because it’s been shrinking on and off for the past six years.
And the terrible thing is that it then worsens my depression because I feel down and frustrated with myself…which then contributes further to my brain struggling to function. It’s a constant downward spiral. And it stresses me out, naturally, because it makes it difficult to complete academic work, take in information, and just think logically.
Instead of accepting and explaining that to people, I let my pride get in the way. I hide it and pretend that I do know what people are talking about. Admitting that I am struggling to think seems even more shameful than the actual diagnosis. I used to try to make mental notes about things mentioned in conversation that I had the feeling I should really know about but don’t dare admit to friends, but I always forget about them so I have since given up with that. It is such a huge deal for me when I do understand something. I get really excited, only for friends to respond as though it’s the most basic thing that everyone should know. That doesn’t help, but they don’t know, because I keep up this act.
This is the first time I’ve admitted this to myself, let alone telling anyone else. I must admit that I feel slightly comforted by the fact that my messy brain can be explained properly with science. However, it does make the future seem more bleak. On the plus side…
Hippocampus shrinkage IS reversible
The good news is that a shrinking brain is not the end of the world; it can be reversed. The reason the hippocampus shrinks in the first place during depressive episodes is because it is not being exercised. Your brain works a bit like a muscle: if you don’t work it, the less effective it becomes. Chronic depression causes the neurons to die, and long story short the brain’s functionality reduces in the areas where the neurons are dying (in this case the hippocampus). However, contrary to traditional belief, the adult brain does still produce neurons, but only in restricted areas such as (you guessed it) the hippocampus.
So how can we reverse the damage?
Well, one effective way is through medication. Scientists suggest that antidepressants can boost the rate new neurons being made. Of course, anyone who has taken antidepressants knows that these are not a quick solution. They can make it a little easier to get up in a morning and try out some personal hygiene; they are a little bit of a leg up and over the kicking-depression-in-the-goolies wall. You still need to do a lot of work to beat it, but as least they can help increase your functionality a bit. From there, it’s a matter of exercising the mind to reverse the reduction of hippocampal volume.
Reading, writing, arts and crafts, playing video games, and even going for a walk can help engage the brain. Learning a new skill can also help to give you a sense of achievement – keying into the brain’s reward system to give you the can-do attitude to do more things. It all sounds easy in theory, and I know that it can be difficult in practice. Nevertheless it is worth trying any of these things out to get over that wall.