For a long time, I knew I did not feel right. I’d gotten so used to my ability to successfully (or so I thought) multi-task, to zoom from place to place and be on time, to constantly check in with myself, setting reminders, writing down notes on Post-Its (I have lots of Post-Its all around).
Checking things off of my to-do list would ease my anxiety just a bit, but I often pushed aside the physical signs that were so clearly present. I ignored what my body was telling me for so long that it felt normal after some time: the burning sensation in my chest as I prepared for some event or activity, the sweat that would build up over my upper lip, the racing heart — these were all signs pointing to anxiety.
Though I could not easily define the sadness I felt, the low feeling, I usually blamed it on PMS. Or the residual trauma from my childhood. Or my recent diagnosis of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). But all of the signs were, and remain, present in my life. I was not diagnosed with anything at all until very recently and this fact brings me so much relief — that I now have something to call my feelings, a name to give them both: anxiety and depression.
I was tired of feeling down and constantly worried, and I chose medication as a way to help me get through the feelings I’d been struggling with for some time. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t suicidal or so incapacitated with anxiety that I could not function without medication, but I chose to go the medication route because I knew I could feel better — with just a little extra help.
In addition to medication, I also found relief in simply knowing my feelings and my physical symptoms had a name. But they also required me to get in touch with my body, to focus more on self-care, and to listen when my body was telling me to slow down. To be kind to myself. To write things down so I wouldn’t forget.
I often joke about how bad my memory is. I started even taking ginkgo in hopes of improving my memory — only to discover that memory loss and learning difficulties can be attributed to suffering from anxiety and depression in tandem. Bryan E. Robinson Ph.D. states in Psychology Today: “Previous studies have shown that depression shrinks the part of the brain, the hippocampus, linked to memory and learning. Many people suffer from both depression and anxiety. Yet most of the past studies do not account for patients with both conditions.”
He goes on to share the research from a recent study from Australian National University, which examined the co-morbidity of anxiety and depression and found that “[O]ver time the pairing has a profound effect on brain areas associated with memory and emotional processing. The study, published in The Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, observed people with depression and anxiety to learn the effects of both disorders on the brain. The researchers examined 10,000 people in 112 studies and found what past research has found: that those with depression alone also have lower brain volumes, especially in the hippocampus.”
Why is any of this important to know, especially if you or someone you love is suffering from anxiety and depression? Because the effects can last well beyond a few years or until the medication kicks in. According to the Psychology Today article, the authors found two important differences in the brain: those with depression alone have lower brain volumes, most notably in the hippocampus, which correlates to a higher chance of getting Alzheimer’s and dementia. However, when a person has both anxiety and depression, the impact on the hippocampus and the amygdala were much different — the hippocampus stays similar in size, and the amygdala increases in size.
The study’s research team estimates that anxiety lowers the impact of depression on brain volume by about three percent … because when the brain is overactive, as it is with anxiety, it develops more connections and enlarges the brain. That enlargement may help “make up for” the shrinking caused by depression, but further studies are needed to determine the long-term cognitive effects of having both depression and anxiety.
Until that happens, all I can do is take my medication, listen to my body, and know what I’m capable (or not capable) of doing. I need to be in touch with my emotions and know when I am feeling low due to my depression, and when I am suffering from PMS or just feel shitty. It’s not easy to tell the difference or admit to a particular feeling- – but it is necessary to sit with it for my well-being. I cannot push them aside any longer, or brush them off as irrelevant feelings or emotions, because they mean something — to me and my family. I must continue to take care of myself, mentally, emotionally, and physically. My life and my family’s livelihood depend on it.
What I want for myself, and you, is a healthier mind, body, and soul. How you get there is up to you. Maybe it’s medicine, maybe it’s more family time, maybe it’s keeping a journal to write it all out. But whatever your “it” is — do it!
Anxiety and depression do not have to hold us back. No matter what they’re doing to our brains, listening to our bodies now can only help us in the long run.