Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast

Depression Through a Nervous System Lens (Part 1)

June 27, 2023 Amanda Armstrong Season 1 Episode 19
Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast
Depression Through a Nervous System Lens (Part 1)
Show Notes Transcript

This is part 1 of a 3 episode mini series about depression.

I mismanaged my depression for SO LONG because I didn’t understand it. I floundered in my healing because I was told things, by doctors and psychiatrists no less, “that this is just the way I am and would just have to manage it my whole life” or “depression was a chemical imbalance” and the only fix was a pill. Because I didn’t really understand what depression was and where it was rooted, I didn’t have any kind of clear roadmap towards healing. My goal today is to offer you education, an alternative lens, and a roadmap that made all the difference for me. In this episode we look at the difference between understanding depression through the chemical imbalance theory vs the polyvagal theory and the difference that can make. I want to help you understand depression in a new way that puts hope back into your healing. Hit play to learn more!

*sources cited here*

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Welcome to regulate, and rewire and anxiety and depression podcast where we discuss the things I wish someone would have taught me earlier in my healing journey. I'm your host, Amanda Armstrong. And I'll be sharing my steps, my missteps, client experiences and tangible research based tools to help you regulate your nervous system, rewire your mind and reclaim your life. Thanks for being here. Now let's dive in. 


Hey, everyone, welcome back today, and the following two episodes are going to be a three part depression series, where we are going to look at depression through a nervous system lens. Today, we are going to address the chemical imbalance theory versus the polyvagal theory and what that means for how you approach your depression management and healing. In part two, we will discuss dissociation, which is often a sister symptom to depression, and talk about how you can start to explore your unique depression map. And part three is where I will introduce tangible tools that you can use in those moments of feeling really shut down, disconnected, dissociated and depressed to regulate your nervous system and ultimately find healing. 


So this three part mini series is very much instructor going to mirror the previous three part anxiety mini series that we did. And some of the basic nervous system education in this mini series may sound familiar from what you learned in that anxiety series. But again, this time, we are going to focus the discussion around depression around that shutdown state versus anxiety and that activated state. 


And to start, I am going to share a story that's still even a little bit tender for me to recall. But I remember in my 20s, we were on a family vacation, one of my sisters had recently gotten engaged, and we were out wedding dress shopping. And I felt for most of this vacation. And definitely when we were out wedding dress shopping, like I was just in some kind of a cloud the whole time. Like I was obviously there, I was downtown with them, I was in the shops with them, but I didn't really feel there. And I've come to know that this was a form of dissociation derealization, where I just kind of like felt separate than the reality. Logically, I knew and understood that I was so happy and so excited for her. And yet I could not show it from the outside in that is not what it looked like at all. I was very distant. In fact, when she came out in the dress that she said yes to in the dress that she was going to get married in. I was so disconnected from the situation that I had actually fallen asleep. In one of the chairs in the shop. My little sister came out in the dress she was going to wear for her wedding and saw her big sister. So detached from the experience that she had fallen asleep. My body was so exhausted and shut down. 


And I don't really even have words. Thinking back on this, I just am so sad. I'm so sad for my little sister in that experience. And I'm so sad for me in that experience as well. And I remember just a couple of days later, sitting at a table alone with my mom in the airport before we all like flew home and went our separate ways. And I just looked at my mom with tears in my eyes. And I said, I know, I know that I have been so miserable to be around this trip. But I just like can't seem to do anything to pull myself out of it. And I just like I didn't know what was going on. Because I've always been the person that no matter what was going on, I could pull myself out of it. I could you know put on a smile. Even if I didn't feel great. I could always fake great and I was so beyond even being able to fake. 


Great. And when it comes to my story with anxiety and depression, I mismanaged my anxiety and depression for so long. Because I didn't understand it. I floundered in my healing because I was told things that by doctors and psychiatrists no less that this just was the way that I am. And I'd have to manage it my whole life that depression was a chemical imbalance and the only fix was a pill. And because I didn't really understand what depression was and where it was rooted. I didn't have any kind of clear roadmap towards towards healing. And my goal today is to offer you some education, an alternative lens or roadmap maybe that could help some of you who might feel the same. This is the road map that made all the difference for me. 


So understanding depression through this nervous system lens was the turning point in my healing journey, where I went from feeling So much inadequacy shame, lack of control to a much softer place of self compassion. I took personal responsibility for things that I needed to. And it gave me hope that there was actually healing. And I want to help you understand depression in a new way that gives you those things to to help you create a more strategic path towards healing. 


And before we dive into any of the other information, any of the things I'm going to share in this episode, just like I did in the anxiety mini series, I am going to start with an invitation for you to set aside what you think you already know about depression, what maybe you've been told by friends, family, or even doctors, you can pick all of those beliefs and all of that information back up at the end of this episode. But I do want to just gently invite you to make space for what might be for some of you a totally new way of understanding the symptoms, understanding what you're experiencing, and your depression in a way that puts you back in the driver's seat of your healing. And I also want to add kind of this disclaimer that I am sharing these things through my own lens through my own experience and my own perspective, and I want to invite you to make sure that you filter it through yours as well. 


So let's for a minute, just assume that you're not broken, let's assume that you did not come into this world hardwired with depression, and that it's not caused by some arbitrary chemical imbalance. And I'll get more into that in a minute. And instead, let's think about what you are experiencing what you're calling depression. What if it actually has a very important purpose. So again, let's assume for a minute that depression isn't the cause of your problems, but maybe the result of how you have needed to adapt to get your needs met, and as far as your nervous system is concerned to survive. So what if your depression isn't a hardline diagnosis that you simply have to manage for the rest of your life. But instead, it is simply your nervous system stuck in a state of survival mode based on a very specific combination of your past lived experiences, and your current life circumstances.


So one of the most common beliefs and in my opinion, misbeliefs, about depression is that it is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. And many of you listening to this episode, you've already been told this, you're like, Yeah, Amanda, we've been updated. We know. I, myself was told this by both a doctor and a psychiatrist at one point. I have also been told by many, many doctors and psychiatrists since that it's not caused by a chemical imbalance. So which is it? It is or isn't caused by a chemical imbalance? And the short answer is that the research would actually say, no, no, it's not. And I know many of you have been told this, and you've approached how you manage and treat your depression through that lens. And if that's working for you, I'm not here to change your mind. I am here to share what the research shows and to offer any of you who want more understanding. Just that because like I said, I mismanaged my depression for a long time, because I didn't understand what I am about to share with you. 


So let's look at the difference in what we believe causes depression, through the chemical imbalance theory versus the polyvagal theory. And then you can do what you will with this comparison and with this information. So what is the chemical imbalance theory? This theory suggests that depression is caused by a specific imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, aka brain chemicals. So this theory, this explanation, whatever it came about, after I'll repeat, after the discovery, that giving people medication that increased serotonin seemed to decrease depression symptoms for many of them. And so this led researchers to propose that deficiencies of various brain chemicals were the underlying cause of mental illness. But this has actually never been supported by subsequent research. 


So think about it this way. This theory came about backwards. So instead of discovering imbalances in brain chemicals, and then making a drug to correct them, they found a drug that boosted serotonin seemed to reduce symptoms and then assumed that a lack of serotonin must be the cause of depression. But that's like assuming that just because caffeine gives you energy, that a lack of caffeine must be the reason that you're tired. And right you want to understand that that's just simply not true. You could be tired for a number of reasons. Maybe you went to bed too late, you have low quality sleep, you're really stressed etc. And so let me be really clear. I'm not saying that we shouldn't use SSRIs, or other medication to support those struggling with depression, because it's life saving necessary in so many cases, just like I would never say we should eradicate caffeine simply because it's not the cause of all tiredness. It can help. It is a tool, it can be a solution, but it is not the solution. And as a solution, in my opinion, it just manages symptoms of being tired more than it ever gets to the underlying cause. And I believe the same to be true about psych medications for anxiety and depression in a lot of cases. 


So in an online article published by the Harvard Medical School, which I'll link in the show notes, they say, it's often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance. But research suggests that depression doesn't spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, there are many possible causes of depression. To be sure chemicals are involved in this process, but it's not simply a matter of having one chemical being too high or too low. So for many of you listening again, this is old news. This theory has been widely and publicly criticized by researchers behind the scenes, especially since in I think it was 2005. When two researchers Jeffrey lowercase and Jonathan Leo, they published an article that was titled serotonin and depression, a connection between the advertisements and the scientific literature. And again, I'll link this in the show notes. 


And in this article, they compared statements made in advertisements for antidepressants, and on patient pamphlets found in doctors offices, and so on put out by the pharmaceutical industry, and they compare that with statements by researchers and academics, who claimed that the serotonin theory of depression was, quote, unsupported and unproven. And the case in Leo claimed that, quote, there exists no rigorous corroboration of the serotonin theory and a significant body of contradictory evidence, and that, quote, doubts about the serotonin hypothesis are well acknowledged by many researchers. And when this came out in 2005, this paper shocked the media, which up until then, just like much of the general public had been persuaded that depression had been scientifically demonstrated to be caused by a deficiency in serotonin or by some chemical imbalance. And this article was so widely publicized that it prompted Wayne Goodman who was the chair of the FDA psychopharmacological committee to admit that evidence of a quote neurochemical deficiency in people with depression was elusive, and described using the chemical imbalance theory as a quote, useful metaphor, although not when he would use with his own patients. 


Now, every time I bring up this conversation, I have met with some hostility from both everyday humans who have clung to this metaphor, and psychiatric professionals who still use it. And this is usually because again, they assume that I am trying to say people should not ever take antidepressants, which I've already stated is not what I'm saying or advocating for. But for every one psychiatric or medical professional that is still parroting or defending this theory, there are at least 10 others that I've connected with, who have updated their rhetoric based on what the actual research shows. And the reality is that there are no peer reviewed research studies that indicate that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Chemicals are involved again, for sure, and medication can be helpful, again, even life saving. But the chemical imbalance theory is not only outdated, but it is on supportive. It became popular because of pharmaceutical advertising so good that it even made its way into medical textbooks. But the research simply isn't there to back it up. And I want to move on from this conversation, because I've got a lot of other things to share today. 


So in summary, though, And in my opinion, this theory has done so much more harm than good when you give people an inaccurate description of the root cause you set them on an inaccurate path towards healing. How in the world is a patient supposed to know when a doctor quits speaking from research supported medical truths, and they start using these metaphors like this is the chemical imbalance theory has now been labeled. And this metaphor grossly oversimplified as the cause of depression in a way that I don't believe allows somebody to make true and informed consent about their treatment and their path towards healing. Depression is so much more nuanced and complicated. And this is why I lean so heavily into the polyvagal theory, because I think this makes so much more room for the nuance and personalization of depression. 


So now let's talk about the polyvagal theory. What is it? Because today's episode is really understanding depression through the nervous system lens through this polyvagal theory. And so this is a theory that explains how the vagus nerve and the autonomic nervous system are interconnected. And the interplay with things like social engagement, emotional regulation, environmental factors. And like we've talked about so many times, it suggests that there are three branches of this autonomic nervous system, right regulation, that social engagement system, we often call that the green zone, that fight or flight mobilized response, this is that yellow zone, and an immobilized and shutdown response, the redzone. And to help you understand depression through this nervous system, or polyvagal Lens, I'm going to briefly referenced that nervous system ladder again.


But if you are somebody who's having a hard time with the idea that the chemical imbalance theory isn't reliable, then I want to invite you to do your own research. Do not take my word for it. Many of you have relied on the chemical imbalance theory to explain your depression for decades, or maybe you were even recently told this by a practitioner. And look, I get it, I got it because I was once there too. So again, don't take my word for it. Do your own research. I will leave links to some of the articles that I've referenced in today's conversation. Go ahead and check those out and go beyond that and come to your own conclusion. 


So this is the first time you're hearing me talk about this, I'll do a quick review. If you've heard me explain this many, many times before in previous episodes, again, I'll stick to a quick review. Because this nervous system ladder, in my opinion, is one of the best maps that we currently have for understanding how the nervous system is impacted by our everyday thoughts, actions, behaviors, stressors, past trauma, etc. 


So again, imagine a ladder. And I'll also attach a visual again in the show notes. And on this ladder, there are three sections at the top is the green zone of regulation, in the middle is that yellow zone of activation. And at the bottom is that red zone of shutdown those three different nervous systems states. Now imagine that you're standing at the top of the ladder holding a bucket. And that bucket represents your nervous system, and its carrying capacity. When the load in that bucket, when the load on your nervous system is light, it's easy to stay at the top of the ladder in that green zone of regulation. This is where you feel calm present, you can cope. And now as you experience real or perceived threat, that load on your nervous system that load in your bucket gets heavier and heavier, and it pushes you further and further down the nervous system ladder. First into that yellow zone, which is that sympathetic activated state. This is actually our preferred response to stressors is mobilization is to get you into motion to do something. But the other response option we have is immobilization to shut down to accept defeat to numb the pain. 


And so when the load on your nervous system gets too big, or maybe it lasts too long, you get pushed down into that final place on that nervous system ladder which is in that red zone. So if anxiety is a mobilized state depression is an immobilized state. And again, according to the polyvagal theory, when stressors in your life get too big, or they last too long, it overwhelms the nervous system and shifts you into that state. It's called dorsal vagal shutdown, I often just refer to it as shut down or the red zone. 


And so through this lens, depression disconnection, or feeling lethargic is a protective mechanism, not something at all broken about you. And this shutdown response is a really common response if there was a childhood trauma, right because fighting or running from a caregiver really isn't an option. So we freeze we shut down we get small we disconnect. The shutdown response is common in events of assault. If somebody is bigger or stronger than you either physically or just within a system structure within a work life system structure of family life system structure societal system structure. This is also a common response after chronic or prolonged stress after you've been stuck in that sympathetic activated state for a really long time. I've shared that my depression very much came as a result of that. I was in this chronic stressed anxious The state for so so so so long that my system finally shut down. 


I'll often say anxiety is in the warning. And when you don't heed the warning, depression is the shutdown. And so through this lens, this low energy low failing state of depression is an adaptive response to what ever has happened or is currently happening in your life. This is your system saying life is too painful for you to engage in. Or it's too overwhelming, and you don't have enough energy to engage with what's happening. And the good news is that your nervous system has the capacity to recalibrate, to regulate and rewire understanding depression through this lens was what flipped the switch for me and my healing journey because I switched from seeing it as something broken about me and out of my control to something that was adaptive and malleable. And what I did next was I just took small and tolerable steps to work with my body's physiology, to access more moments of safety. I made changes to my daily life circumstances that were keeping me stuck and shut down in this chronic survival state. And I created space for the past hurt parts of me to pave a way towards lasting healing, I created the capacity to turn towards some really painful experiences that I had been through to offer those parts of me the validation, the protection and the healing that I didn't have in those moments. 


And so understanding depression through a nervous system lens, in my opinion, is so much more research supported, validating of your personal experience, and it provides so much more hope and root cause strategic healing, then the chemical imbalance theory, because rather than relying solely on this simplistic belief that there's an imbalance in your brain that you did nothing to contribute to, and there's nothing you can do to fix it organically or that it even exists in the first place. This approach understanding depression through a nervous system lens respects and hold space for the reality that depression is complex. It's an individualized condition. And that healing involves a combination of approaches and tools that are personalized to you that look at this whole human whole life, mind and body. And this is exactly the life changing and healing work that we do at races, we've in our practice. 


We work with each and every one of our clients as a completely unique, whole, mind bodied human. We help them bring all of the pieces of their story to the table with validity with self compassion with curiosity. And we mirror that with understanding how your nervous system works, so that each and every one of our clients can work with this system towards healing. And this is why so many of our clients see leaps and bounds in their healing journey. Because when you understand your body's physiology, when you understand this protective survival state, you can work with it in a really tangible way that heals your psychology in a really powerful ways as well. 


And so the goal of today's episode was really just to help you gain some of the basics, to access this reframe of understanding depression through a nervous system lens, and to view it as the protective mechanism that it is that's pesky and nuanced, and complicated. But my hope is that in understanding it that way, there is also some new self compassion, some new curiosity that can pave the way towards healing in a new way. 


So let's summarize with our three tangible takeaways and invitations on how you might be able to take what you've heard today and start to reflect or apply it to your healing journey today. And number one is to remember at the beginning of the episode, I invited you to set down any of your current beliefs around depression. And I told you that you could pick them back up again at the end. And so I guess TAKEAWAY NUMBER ONE is just an invitation to reflect on what you've just heard. And ask yourself what feels the most helpful or true for you as you move forward in your healing journey, and tangible takeaway. 


Number two is an invitational reframe. That depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain, but rather it's a nervous system overwhelmed to the point of shutdown. because of a variety of factors could be trauma, stress, genetic component, hormones, environment, lifestyle or social factors, negative thinking patterns, lack of coping mechanisms and so on. And so reframing to this, this place of maybe I'm not broken. Maybe the shutdown state is a totally appropriate response to all of the things that I've been through or going through. 


And if that's the case, then what now, which leads me to tangible takeaway number three, which is an invitation to reflect, maybe take some of these questions to your journal to a coach or therapist or practitioner you're already working with and just to really go inward. And ask yourself, if you think it might be this protective mechanism that is totally appropriate for what you've been through? How does this change how you approach your healing? What do you want to do next? What support do you need? And just see what comes up for you with those questions. 


So I want to thank you for being here. These aren't always easy episodes or conversations to have, but I think they are so meaningful. They're all what I wish I would have known earlier in my healing journey, that depression was not any kind of personal failure. And to you, my friend, maybe this is what you need to hear to. Depression is not any kind of personal failure, you are absolutely doing the best with the tools that you have and the hand that you've been dealt, you are not choosing this nervous system response. It is simply a result of the current load on your nervous system. You're not choosing this response, but it is up to you to choose to do something about it. I personally couldn't have done this work on my own. 


And so I want to remind you that there is no shame in getting help. In fact, I think it is often crucial when our nervous system has reached this level of shutdown, a sense of CO regulation and community. Research shows us is vital to regulating into healing. And my practice and our programs are just one of the many places that you might be able to find that support. So I am sending you so much hope and healing. I truly truly believe that there is life for you on the other side of depression. And I will see you in part two of this mini series to dive a little bit more into that, where we are going to talk about dissociation and how you can start to explore and gain awareness around some of the unique nuances of your depression to create a more strategic and personalized roadmap towards healing. 


Thanks for listening to another episode of The regulate and rewire podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and leave a five star review to help us get these powerful tools out to even more people who need them. And if you yourself are looking for more personalized support and applying what you've learned today, consider joining me inside Rhys, my monthly mental health membership and nervous system healing space or apply for our one on one anxiety and depression coaching program restore. I've shared a link for more information to both in the show notes. Again, thanks so much for being here. And I'll see you next time.