When the average person thinks of depression, it’s likely that they’re thinking of sudden bursts of sadness, thoughts of worthlessness, a lack of interest in old hobbies, and in severe cases, serious thoughts of suicide. But there is more to depression than just thought, as the disorder affects many on such a level that the side effects of depression disturb their behavior, cognition, subconscious, and physical health.
More than just a prolonged bout of sadness, depression is a serious and debilitating illness that can leave a person fundamentally changed, affecting nearly every aspect of life. To understand how powerful depression can be, it’s important to first define it.
Most cases of depression refer to a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, or MDD. MDD is diagnosed with a person experiences a set of symptoms consistently for more than two weeks. A depression can refer to a prolonged period of sadness in conjunction with other conditions or circumstances – for example, someone can be ‘depressed’ for weeks after the death of a loved one – but major depressive disorder is usually diagnosed when the depressive symptoms seem to come and go with no apparent trigger, often resulting in long periods of deep sadness for no obvious reason.
That is not to say that a loved one’s death can’t greatly exacerbate depression, sending a person down a devastating and sometimes self-destructive spiral. While many things can trigger a depressive episode, depression itself begins deeper in the brain, and typically occurs due to a variety of both external and internal factors, making it an illness that is both hereditary and spreads in harsh, stressful conditions.
The Side Effects of Depression
Depression can cause emotional, physical, and social side effects, many of which feed into one another. One of the most widespread side effects of depression is insomnia, or the inability to fall asleep. While our necessity for sleep is still a great big mystery to us, there is irrefutable evidence that we need to sleep for both our psychological and our physical well being. A troubled sleeping schedule does more than just lead to tardiness, it can cause serious mental and physical deficits, leaving us weak and groggy day in and day out.
This is exacerbated by the effects that depression is proven to have on cognitive abilities and focus, as shown by different studies. Depressed individuals have a harder time concentrating and solving problems, struggling with focus and decision making. Depression is also tied to an increased risk of death through several illnesses, including heart disease and weight problems. Binge eating and stress eating are more common among people with depression than the general population, because of its effectiveness as a quick coping mechanism. Depression does not only affect motivation and emotion, but heavily affects physical fatigue and pain, causing individuals who are depressed to feel tired, deterring physical activity. Aches and pains with no reasonable physical explanation are also known to crop up as a result of depression – the body responds more readily to pain signals, driving sensitivity through the roof. And to add to it, depression also seems to cut into a person’s immune system, leaving them sick more often.
Treatment for depression depends on a person’s history and symptoms. While many of the side effects described above can be exacerbated or even caused by a form of depression, one of the most challenging parts of treating mental illness is accurately diagnosing a patient’s individual symptoms to begin with. Many individuals who struggle with depression also struggle with an anxiety disorder. Others exhibit depressive and suicidal symptoms as a result of a completely different condition, including a number of physical illnesses, from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) to hypothyroidism.
Hence, treatment for depression is complicated and often relies on trying a number of different approaches and seeing what a patient responds to best. Among antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often prescribed first because of their relatively low number of side effects and overall availability and ease of use. These drugs are quite effective in treating depression for most cases, but there are times when they don’t work at all, and times when the side effects are far too overwhelming to justify continuing treatment.
Side effects for SSRIs range from weight gain and insomnia to worsened symptoms. Other antidepressants utilize similar mechanisms but make use of different chemical compositions or affect entirely different compounds in the brain to treat depression. Examples include SNRIs, MAOIs, TCAs, and more.
What to do When Antidepressants Don’t Work
There is no doubt that depression is far-reaching and debilitating. And for millions of Americans across the country, conventional treatment is not an option. While antidepressants continue to be the most cost-effective option for tackling major depressive disorder and other forms of depression, this first line treatment is not always the best option. Many people are treatment-resistant, experiencing little to no benefit from their antidepressant use, despite trying several different kinds of antidepressants often for over more than a year of treatment.
For these people, it can easily become very straining to try and maintain a semblance of hope for a happier, depression-free future. But it exists. Alternative therapies, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation and other forms of neuromodulation, exist to help individuals with treatment-resistant depression finally experience a remission in symptoms. Best of all, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has no lasting side effects and is completely non-invasive and pain-free.
It’s not magic. This treatment targets the brain and makes use of a special set of coils to send magnetic waves into a patient’s skull, interrupting errant brain signals and affecting portions of the brain responsible for mood, specifically in pathways tied to the limbic system.Through repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, these signals change over time, bringing relief to most patients and even causing a total remission of depressive symptoms in roughly a third of cases.
As depression is treated, so do its many side effects begin to take their leave. Complaints of pain and headaches recede. Sleep issues are more easily tackled, and sleep hygiene is more easily observed.
A better diet and better mood lead to improvements in a person’s immune system, strength, sex drive, and intellect. Eating well, thinking clearly, and being free from the stress of constant self-deprecation and negative thinking leads to clear cognitive benefits, increased rational thinking, and a return to previous mental capacities – or a marked improvement over previous abilities.
The urge to procrastinate fades, and it becomes easier to focus.
All this sounds too good to be true, but the physical and emotional effects of mental illness should not be understated, especially in an environment conducive to constant chronic stress – from existential and financial worries to the bombardment of information from the media, to the rise in anxiety and mood disorders causing many to feel uneasy both physically and mentally.
TMS is just one effective treatment option for many, and awareness is key.