The Prescription for Depression? "Oops, Never Mind!"
By Deepak Chopra
December 02, 2009
When it comes to depression and anxiety, a prescription may not be the only answer. Deepak Chopra explains how positive lifestyle changes can have powerful benefits if you're struggling with depression and anxiety.
Most of us have been depressed at one time during our lives, or know someone who is seriously depressed. When Prozac burst on the scene 20 years ago, it seemed that a major step had been achieved. More people responded well to the drug and fine-tuning it was easier than with past antidepressants.
Since then, taking antidepressants has become as normal as taking aspirin for a headache. Yet the ebullience of the Prozac generation was steadily undercut. Many patients didn't respond to the point that it is now conceded that more than half of depressed people may not benefit from any standard antidepressant. Along with alarming statistics about violence and suicide associated with these drugs, the treatment of depression has become increasingly shaky.
Now a major study has concluded that the entire approach of Prozac and related drugs has been wrong from the start. That's a very big "oops" on the part of pharmaceutical companies and the research they use as justification for their billion-dollar drugs.
Professor Eva Redei, who is a leading depression researcher at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, has just burst not one but two bubbles, in the form of long-held beliefs about depression.
In other words, if awful things happen to you, you will become depressed. Stressors include loss of a loved one, a failed job, bad relationship, tragic accident or major financial loss. We call these depressing events, but Redei found that the genes related to stress are totally different from those related to depression.
Belief #2: Depressed people have chemical imbalances in their brains.
For 20 years, researchers have repeated the mantra that low levels of essential messenger molecules—serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine—lead to depression. "My brain made me feel this way" seems so logical that antidepressants almost entirely work by manipulating levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. But Redei found no depletion of genes that produce these chemicals in depressed people.
It's a wonder, given the false basis of the theory, that any of these drugs work. And some researchers suggest that they don't, but depend, in fact, on a strong placebo response in the patients who are helped. To get back to square one, Redei suggests something that should have been obvious all along: Depression starts higher up than chemicals. It starts with the formation and functioning of neurons. To put it in layman's language, the brain cells in depressed people are adapted to express their depression. This takes the form of neural pathways that carry a message of sadness and hopelessness instead of those pathways that carry a message of happiness and optimism.
How can those suffering from depression get help?
Being a laboratory researcher, Redei takes her shattering conclusion and heads off in much the same direction as before: She wants to find newer, better drugs that will manipulate genes and neurons rather than manipulating the chemicals they produce. Yet there is a more logical way to proceed, which is to stop making depressed neural pathways and healing those that already exist.
How to do that? Current research is very optimistic, because it turns out that the positive lifestyle changes advised for such a long time actually change both genetic expression and neural pathways. In other words, your brain cells listen to your behavior and beliefs, and if those behaviors and beliefs are powerful enough, the brain changes. What this means is that therapy, spiritual practices, healthy relationships, love and compassion, avoidance of toxins, meditation and stress management aren't secondary. They are central to dealing with depression and anxiety.
The deep lesson emerging from Redei's new findings is that drugs will never be the way. The way is far more human, and therefore complicated. It would be nice if popping a pill improved your life, but only you can do that. The ball is back in the court of the human potential movement and its promise of higher consciousness as the road to health and wholeness. I for one view that as a great improvement over drugs, which can be saved for critical and chronic conditions when more human strategies have not worked.