How trauma leads to depression and how to heal

Feb 12, 2020Depression

When depression hits, it is a blow to our life energy. Why? What is happening in the brain at these times? And do we have any recourse? Is it possible to leverage what we know about neuroscience and resonant language to have an effect?

I come to this inquiry in deep reverence and curiosity, because I spent my early and adult life smothered by chronic, unwavering, deeply immobilizing depression.

I’ve since learned that the way in which my brain slowly became accustomed to collapse, to slowing down almost to a halt, robbed of a sense of meaning or purpose, makes perfect sense based on the trauma I’ve experienced.

What DOESN’T make sense is that most of us are under the impression that depression is caused by biochemical imbalance, and is a permanent state of chronic disease.

This reductionist story–spun by powerful pharmaceutical companies and often perpetuated by trauma-illiterate psychiatrists–ignores and obscures the psychosocial and traumatic underpinnings of depression.

Explore the full story and some of the most recent research about what causes depression, which treatments works and which don’t, and what kind of support we can give ourselves and others in the face of depression in my webinar here.

Top 5 neuroscience insights about depression:

#1: Depression isn’t caused by biochemical imbalances that have no known origin, as many have previously thought. Instead, depression has a laundry list of precursors and predictors that are complex and multifaceted:

    • Trauma (psychological, intergenerational, systemic)
    • Aloneness
    • Chronic stress
    • Perfectionism
    • Authoritarian parenting (restrictive, punitive, without warmth)
    • Psychosocial factors leading to helplessness
    • Resentment/dislike of the self
    • Inflammation and chronic pain
    • Some effects of hormonal cycles
    • Malfunctions of the cerebellum (trauma like sexual abuse affects the cerebellum)
    • Any of the above can be impacted, aggravated and/or initiated by socio-economic and systemic injustice such as racism, poverty, transphobia, gender disparities, ableism, et cetera

#2: Understanding poly-vagal theory, emotional circuitry, and the nervous system state changes that are part of depression helps us understand and validate our immobilization:

hand-drawn image of the phases of depression

Our nervous systems long to create and take action, to enjoy a life where we can access agency, aliveness, contribution…

When our process of seeking is disrupted by surprising blocks, challenges, and other frustrations, we can experience rage, helplessness, and eventually the immobilization that is the final stage of major depression.

#3: 69% of patients with depression present somatic symptoms in primary care settings. This means that seemingly simple problems, such as “Irritable Bowel” syndrome, often have much broader etiologies.

  • Depression makes bodies ache. Neck pain, chest pain, pelvic pain and more can all be manifestations and/or associations of depression.
  • Depression and anxiety have unique contributions to somatic complaints in depression, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel diseases
  • We must expand our understanding of the mind body connection as we turn our attention toward our aching bodies! And encourage our physicians to do the same.

#4: Research shows that well-intentioned advice that encourages us to “remember the good times” can actually lead to more sadness!

  • Depressed patients tend to believe that “everything was better before”, “life was easier in the past”, with a feeling of nostalgia associated with the belief that the happiness of the past can’t be achieved anymore.
  • Thinking about positive memories is not an effective way to improve the mood in depressed patients (as opposed to non-depressed individuals).

#5: There are many interventions for depression, including:

  • Self-empathy and warmth. The work outlined in Your Resonant Self helps us subtract the self-hate and self-blame from the picture, relieving that burden on brain and body
  • Time-travel empathy for aloneness
  • Freeing the seeking circuit to do it’s job
  • Self-warmth and/or needs-based meditations
  • Drawing upon your ancestors
  • Discovering and releasing unconscious contracts
  • Detoxing the critical default mode network
  • Activating the CARE and PLAY circuits to balance the endocannabinoid system
  • Learning the source of our depression, which can help lead to different strategies and empathy guesses, catered to our very specific experience.

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About Sarah

Sarah Peyton

Sarah Peyton

Sarah Peyton, international speaker and facilitator, has a passion for weaving together neuroscience knowledge and experiences of healing that unify people with their brains and bodies.

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