Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Speculating on Chemical Imbalances as a Cause of Depression

A few days ago a friend of mine asked me my opinion about the connection between clinical depression and chemical imbalances. Here is my very speculative answer:

My understanding of depression is that it always involves a person's mindset as well as chemical configurations within anyone's bio-system.   Any given event, let's say good news about a loved one's recovery from an illness on the one hand, or sudden news about a  great loss in the stock market will set off thoughts and emotions that will change body chemistry.  "Good things happening" place one's physical being into a setting of comfort, and /or excitement, and the world is perceived as a place of joy--the heart beats happily, taste buds and digestion enter a dance of appreciation with the food that is eaten, the mind looks forward to solving problems, and one's muscles are ready for active movement.

"Bad things happening" may at first place one's body into a defensive and alert condition.   Personal rejections may bring feelings of disappointment.   A series of disappointments may cause body and mind to go into a standby mode, which, if intensified, shuts down activity and ends up causing an individual's body and mind to enter into a state of hibernation that feels like nothing less than clinical depression.  Just as the body chemistry of someone in happy circumstances is taken to be "balanced,"  the body chemistry of someone in dire straits will appear to be "imbalanced."

Having established that life's experiences can push an individual into the chemical imbalance of clinical depression, it would seem that the escape from depression could come either as a result from "lucky events" or from therapy that helps change the depressed person's thinking  into happier thoughts that help restore a healthy chemical balance. 

And yet, while it may be obvious that a healthy chemical balance may be supported by "good thinking," there is no guarantee that the right kind of mindset will prevail over a bio system falling into depression. It may be possible that someone slides into a state of depression without any obvious triggering events in his/her personal life, but that a chemical imbalance comes about for unknown reasons. It may happen that an individual reaches a state of clinical depression in which no kind of human interaction can restore a healthy chemical balance. Once a state of bio-energetic lock-down is manifest there can no longer be communication because the sufferer will be unable to get the meaning of what is being said.

When words can no longer reach someone who is deeply depressed, other interventions become more attractive. Fifty, sixty years ago, the simple solution was to subject patients to electroshock treatments, which tended to work because the "treatment" involved was so great a trauma to a patient's nervous system that the patient developed coping mechanisms that would restore chemical balance in order to avoid the torture of electroshocks.  Somehow a very diabolical approach of inducing the fear of extreme pain worked to jar patients out of their depression. 

Keeping in mind the torment the clinically depressed underwent with electroshock therapy, the administration of anti-depressant chemicals is humane  by comparison.  And yet, there may be better ways.  I have been speculating about placing clinically depressed persons on high-speed roller coasters to see if the shock effect of the ride would trigger life affirming survival mechanisms.  I am fully aware of the logistical problems of strapping a group of clinically depressed patients into the seats of a ride like the Viper at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Issues of security and liability might be prohibitive to say the least. But there is no reason to lose all hope: With ever greater progress in the development of virtual reality devices not all is lost.  It is quite conceivable that with advancing technology the clinically depressed can be jarred back into the joy of life through an exhilarating virtual reality roller coaster ride wearing little more than computerized head gear designed for this purpose.