Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist's Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain's Healing Power
"Depression hurts," chimes the television announcer. Most people have been depressed at some point in their lives, whether from a life-changing event or simply a bad patch of circumstance. I am willing to wager that if you haven’t been there yourself, you know someone who has suffered from depression. The pharmaceutical industry is now doling out pills to treat depression and a large portion of our population is taking them, some with marked results, some going from pill to pill searching for the perfect cocktail that will relieve them of pain and anxiety, fear and restlessness.
In her book Lifting Depression, Kelly Lambert explores the reasons why people born in the middle of the twentieth century are ten times more likely to suffer from major depression compared to people born in the early twentieth century. Why, in our modern day convenience-filled society, do people seem to be so ill at ease? Dr. Lambert is the chair of psychology at Randolph-Macon College and President of the Behavioral Neuroscience Society, and her research has been featured on ABC’s World News Tonight and in Scientific American Mind.
In one experiment she conducted with rats, some had to work hard for rewards while others, dubbed the "trust fund rats," were simply given the treats. After five weeks, the hardworking rats were sixty percent more persistent in trying to work on a new task. She describes this as "learned persistence," and theorizes that coming from our agrarian roots, the human brain receives stimulation from doing concrete tasks like working with our hands, and accomplishing something you can hold as the fruit of your labor, "effort driven rewards."
Lambert's studies find that engaging the effort driven rewards circuit of your brain appears to be equivalent to taking a dose of the most powerful antidepressants. With this in mind, she suggests that something like "behavioral activation therapy" can work to retrain your brain to be happier in the long term. With this form of therapy, a person learns how to alter their behavioral responses to situations and even change their environments to stimulate the brain into feeling more rewarded and therefore relieving the subject of their depression.
Lambert is not advocating the end of pharmaceutical intervention to lift someone out of a lethargic and depressed state. But she maintains that without some other form of therapy, or alteration in activities, a person could simply remain on these drugs, without ever being able to get out of the cycle completely.
Lifting Depression is not only a valuable addition to the field of psychology in an academic sense, but it is also a readable guide book that I would recommend to anyone struggling with depression or seeking to understand how they could offer better guidance to a person who is.
It seems so simple, to engage in exercise, to take up knitting or woodworking as a way to engage the brain in a new rewards program that will assist in finding happiness. But if it is so simple, (and inexpensive!), then why are most people advised by their healthcare providers to just pop the pill and carry on as usual?