We all have happy hormones in our brain and at certain times in our lives and under certain circumstances these can be higher or lower in amount depending on the situation. When happy hormone levels become greatly depleted we can develop depression and/or anxiety. This can follow, for example, an extremely stressful period in our lives when we have experienced trauma, or it can just sneak up on us as a result of fatigue and burn-out.
The latter situation I encounter quite frequently. Patients do not realise why they feel so down, have no energy, and cannot sleep. Their happy hormone levels have plummeted so low that they are suffering from the early stages of depression and had no idea that this was happening. One particular patient of mine, a mum of three daughters, came to see me after one of her daughters had in the last twelve months been diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Up to this point she had always been the strong figurehead in the family and kept all the practicalities of home life running. She maintained a brave face and positive attitude until the breaking point. She came to see me when she was quite literally at the end of her tether. She expressed that she no longer had the motivation to feel happy, felt so guilty for not being able to be present emotionally for her family, and felt exhausted all the time. She was having thoughts of not wanting to wake up in the morning but knew she had to keep going for her daughters. When I suggested that she was suffering from clinical depression the idea had never crossed her mind. Within a few months of starting some treatment, which in her case involved medication as well as counselling, her clinical depression lifted and she was back to being able to cope with the situation at hand.
This example highlights how important it is to have enough happy hormones circulating in our brain to prevent anxiety and depression from happening. With up to one in five of us developing anxiety and/or depression at some stage in our lives it is paramount that we understand what can affect the levels of happy hormones in our brain so that we can hopefully safeguard ourselves from these mental health conditions.
Many people today would be living their lives under the dark shadow of depression or anxiety and not realise that they have these mental health conditions. That is because the symptoms can range from mild to severe and so less obvious cases can go undiagnosed. Eventually, though, if depression or anxiety is not treated or well-managed, relationships, careers, and overall well-being unfortunately starts to become significantly impacted. This is often the time when people will seek help, however the recovery is often longer and more involved.
Another patient of mine had been suffering from mild depression for many years without realising. This came about following several rounds of unsuccessful IVF treatment with his then wife. The disappointment of not being able to have children followed by pressures from work caused him to turn to drinking wine to cope. After several years of burying his emotions and self-medicating with alcohol he noticed that he no longer had a social life, a fulfilling marriage, or a rewarding career. Without realising, Bill had sunk deep into the depths of depression and was soon on the way to a nervous breakdown. Luckily he then sought help with the encouragement of a close friend. That is when Bill came to see me several years ago and we began the journey towards recovery. Although his treatment was sometimes difficult and involved letting go of old thought patterns, old habits and adopting a new way of thinking and living, he is now living a
much happier life.
Bill’s story is not uncommon and reflects how easy it is in our busy lives to overlook our mental health and well-being. So what exactly are the symptoms of depression or anxiety?
How Do You Know If You Have Clinical Depression?
Symptoms can range from mild to severe but when they are significantly impairing your quality of life and relationships then clinicians refer to that state as ‘clinical depression’. To make the diagnosis of clinical depression, the classic textbook definition states that you need to have at least five of the following symptoms present during the same two week period.
- Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, e.g. feeling sad or empty, or often tearful.
- Decreased interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
- Significant weight loss when not dieting, or weight gain (e.g. a change of more than 5 per cent of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
- Insomnia or increased sleeping nearly every day.
- Agitation or slowed movements.
- Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.
- Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal idealisation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.
Although the above describes a definite diagnosis of depression it is also common to see individuals suffering from lower states of mood without meeting the criteria for severe depression. If you are feeling low for a consistent period of time with or without thoughts of ending your life then consider you may be going through a milder case of depression. Seek some professional help before it becomes more severe.
How Do You Know If You Have Anxiety?
Anxiety is very common and part of the normal range of human emotions. It can range from mild, low level anxiousness about certain situations, which may be appropriate given the situation, or it may be excessive. When anxiety begins to rule your happiness, however, and you now avoid certain situations, this is known as an anxiety disorder.
There are several types of anxiety disorders including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and generalised anxiety disorder.
Panic disorder – people with this condition experience feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning, which is commonly known as a panic attack. Other symptoms of a panic attack include sweating, chest pain, palpitations (unusually strong or irregular heartbeats), and a feeling of choking, which may make the person feel like he or she is having a heart attack or ‘going crazy’.
Social anxiety disorder – also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. The worry often centres on a fear of being judged by others, or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule.
Specific phobias – a specific phobia is an intense fear of a specific object or situation, such as snakes, heights or flying. The level of fear is usually inappropriate to the situation and may cause the person to avoid common, everyday situations.
Generalized anxiety disorder – this disorder involves excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke the anxiety.
As part of the above anxiety disorders the overall general symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness
- Problems sleeping
- Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- An inability to be still and calm
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Muscle tension
It is quite common to see patients who are unaware that they are suffering specifically from anxiety but have a number of the symptoms above. They often present wanting help with not being able to fall asleep or waking in the middle of the night not being able to go back to sleep. This is often the first sign that anxiety is starting to affect your mental well-being. One particular patient of mine who highlights this was a young woman in her twenties who had a very stressful job with high- level responsibilities for her age. Prior to starting this job she had no problems with sleep, but soon after being promoted to her new role she began finding it difficult to fall asleep at night. She started to panic about not being able to sleep, which perpetuated the problem. She then started having episodes of having difficulty breathing, tingling around the mouth and fingertips, feeling lightheaded and faint, and experiencing racing heartbeats. She thought she was having heart troubles and had presented to the emergency department on several occasions only to be sent home with a clean bill of health. When she came to see me she was in quite a state of panic. She spoke quickly, looked exhausted, and found it hard to sit still. We investigated a number of things to rule out any organic cause for her symptoms.
When these came back negative I explained that I thought she was suffering from anxiety related to stress. She was reluctant to accept the diagnosis but when I explained that suffering anxiety did not mean that she was not able to mentally cope with her work situation, nor did it mean that she had caused this condition but rather her body was giving her clues that it was time to rest, she was more accepting. We then started the process of unwinding the anxiety response and putting some stress-management strategies in place.
Dr Cris Beer
Holistic Medical Doctor