Even though I am stable, I feel that bipolar depression has permanently changed all aspects of my brain: my memory, ability to focus, and self-confidence.
Having lived with Bipolar I for over a decade, I have been through my share of depressions. However, there was one from the winter of 2011 until the fall of 2012 that I wasn’t sure I would make it out of. This was my Great Depression. A depression so severe I could not get out of bed. When I did I collapsed on the couch. At first, I felt so much pain I couldn’t stop crying. Then the pain became so deep I grew numb. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t experience any emotions except despair. The time I spent awake I was either crippled with anxiety or desperately planning to take my own life. Eventually, I was put on antidepressants. At that point, I had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. A manic episode followed and lasted about five months, landing me in the hospital with a bipolar diagnosis.
After my hospital stay, I experienced yet another depression that lasted nearly two and a half years.
These two depressions were my absolute worst, and I have noticed a mental fallout ever since. The lingering effects of these depressions have left me with a poor memory, difficulty concentrating, slower cognitive functioning, and a social anxiety that has never quite dissipated.
When I was depressed, I believed that I was worthless, that I was a loser, and that people thought the worst of me. This led to a deep rift between myself and the rest of society. I suddenly felt as if I could no longer connect with people. And the worst part is that this feeling still lingers. Most of the time when I try to interact with people, the voice of the old depression says, “You’re not good enough, don’t even try to make a joke because you’re not funny anymore, you’re a pathetic loser.”
Even though I am stable and have been for quite awhile, I feel like my brain has permanently changed. I’d much rather stay at home than do anything else. I’m content to be practically alone. And when I do have to go out into the world, I’m always afraid my cognitive deficits will be noticed, whether it’s my poor memory or my difficulty focusing.
Not willing to accept defeat, I have been looking for studies on brain changes after depression. I wanted to make sure I’m not the only one who has experienced these lingering effects. Scientists have found that depression can in fact damage the brain, and that the hippocampus in particular can actually decrease in size by ten percent after a depressive episode. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and stress functions. It is also part of the limbic system which contains the amygdala. Together, it is our emotional center. And a loss of memory isn’t just about being forgetful. One scientist explains, “Your whole sense of self depends on continuously understanding who you are in the world – your state of memory is not about just knowing how to do Sudoku or remembering your password – it’s the whole concept we hold of ourselves.”
So how can you overcome the mental fallout after depression and improve everything from your memory to your emotional, mental, and physical health?
The answer is exercise.
There are some promising studies being done on how exercise affects our brains. Researchers at UC Davis Health System in Sacramento, CA, found that intense exercise lasting between eight and twenty minutes increased certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Particularly they found that levels of glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, were positively affected by exercise. These two neurotransmitters are often depleted in people with major depression. Levels of glutamate and GABA were found to improve not only immediately after exercise, but into the following week as well. This means that certain cognitive functions, emotions, and visual processing were all positively influenced with lasting effects.
Admittedly, I still struggle to find the time or desire to exercise. Even knowing how it immediately improves my mood (having experienced it firsthand), I tend to lack the motivation. And my excuses find even more traction in winter. It’s too cold! I’m too tired! It’s too dark!
So to combat this I bought a mini trampoline to use in my apartment. It’s about 33″ and all I do is jump up and down on it, but even five to ten minutes while listening to music is a great mood booster. And besides the physical benefits, it also has a way of dislodging my stuck thoughts and interrupting the circuitry of obsessive thinking. Furthermore, bouncing on a trampoline provides just the right amount of exercise for me. Too much exercise can trigger a manic episode in some people. On the other hand, that isn’t an excuse to be entirely sedentary. If you’ve been struggling to find the right type of exercise, I encourage you to try the trampoline.
If you don’t want to bounce, that’s ok too. But find an exercise and stick with it. The emotional, physical, and mental benefits are too good to pass up.