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Rewiring my brain

Since the day depression knocked me down, almost everything about me has changed. The things I usually enjoy, for instance, no longer make sense to me. I also feel very sad and hopeless. I stay in my room almost every day, loathing myself, thinking about death, crying for no apparent reason, sleeping too much or too little. Sometimes, when I’m in class, you’ll see me staring out the window, or sleeping like a log, my hands cupping my face.

Truth be told, I never knew how damaging depression really is to a person’s life. I realized it only when I discovered last year that, aside from behavioral symptoms of depression, this mental disorder also has physical manifestations in the brain. Specifically, recurrent depressive episodes reduce the size of the hippocampus, which results in cognitive deficits—for example, in short-term and working memory, attention, visual and auditory processing, verbal and nonverbal learning, etc., all of which may interfere with one’s day-to-day activities.

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Furthermore, I also learned that even if depression is in full remission, cognitive deficits do not go away completely. According to Poul Videbech, a specialist in psychiatry at the Centre for Psychiatric Research at Aarhus University Hospital, depression leaves its mark on the brain as it results in a 10-percent reduction of the hippocampus. “In some cases, this reduction continues when the depression itself is over,” he says.

Such discoveries lead me to this conclusion: I’ve had depression since 2012. Thus, most probably I have brain damage now, considering the fact that I’ve been experiencing symptoms of cognitive deficits from time to time. This preoccupies me, really. I have tons of dreams and if I can’t fix my brain, I might not be able to reach them. Besides, who wants a shrunk hippocampus?

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Because consultation with a psychiatrist and medical treatments—psychotherapy and antidepressant medication, among others—require a lot of money (and I have none), I did some research on alternative medical treatments. (I actually only knew I have depression when I took an exam in the internet, in which I scored 88 out of 101 questions.) The first thing that caught my attention was the brain’s plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity.

In contrast with the notion that the brain is hard-wired and does not change after childhood, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to rewire its structure at any age in response to what you do, feel, think, and experience. Every time you feel a specific emotion, for example, or do an exercise, the brain mechanically creates neural pathways or roads. If you repeat these behaviors, you strengthen these pathways—and this in turn allows the brain to travel these new roads much easier. In other words, as Richard Davidson points out, “we can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity changes in our brain.”

One example of neuroplasticity in action is the case of Barbara Arrowsmith Young, who was born cognitively deficient but changed her brain years later. As a child, she had a hard time understanding ideas, concepts, and relationships. She couldn’t even understand language. In 1977, she discovered the source of her problem: Part of her brain in the left hemisphere wasn’t working.

To cut a long story short, as soon as Barbara knew about the brain’s plasticity, she embarked on doing particular tasks that were of huge help to curing her brain damage. For instance, since she was weak at understanding concepts and language, she read as many books as she could. She was eventually able to read and understand more books than ever before—which, apparently, promotes brain plasticity.

Barbara was born cognitively deficient, and I wasn’t. If she was able to change herself, then so can I.

Immediately I take a step forward and do these cheap yet effective ways—every day—to rewire my brain:

  1. Because I am avoiding staying too much in my room, I busy myself watching movies and documentaries, listening to songs, etc. This is kind of my coping mechanism to avoid confronting my racing thoughts.
  1. Whenever I’m at home I “force” myself to read novels, articles on the internet, short essays, or poems. Reading enhances cognitive ability, improves memory, and also reduces stress. Dr. David Lewis says: “Reading for as little as six minutes is sufficient to reduce stress levels by 60 percent, slowing the heartbeat, easing muscle tension and altering the state of mind.”
  1. I express my thoughts and emotions through writing poems and short stories. It is believed that writing reduces anxiety, sadness, and fear. Also, it improves concentration and memory.
  1. Every morning after I wake up I do mindfulness meditation and aerobic exercise. Mindfulness meditation is correlated with a decreased volume of gray matter in the amygdala, a part of the brain that plays a significant role in anxiety and stress. The shrinkage of the amygdala thickens the prefrontal cortex, and therefore improves concentration and decision-making.

Aerobic exercise, on the other hand, strengthens and grows the brain; it improves memory and thinking skills.

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Scientists claim that these activities can help with depression. “When done together,” says Tracey Shors, a professor of exercise science at Rutgers, “there is a striking improvement in depressive symptoms along with increases in synchronized brain activity.”

To sum up, I occupy my mind with other stimuli (e.g., exercising, reading, writing, listening to music, etc.) for three reasons: to cure my depression, lingering in my body for almost five years now; to shift my attention from my negative thoughts; and to rewire my seemingly shrunk brain and change its physical structure to its normal size.

But doing so is not as easy as it seems. There are roads and pathways I have yet to traverse, and I may stumble there one day, with my head down and sunken eyes. There may be even storms and waves that will pull me back. And I might look like a glass turtle swimming again and again in a sea of barbwires, as if I have no direction in life.

But there’s one thing I know for sure: I am the captain of my soul, and a captain knows where to find an island and how to reach the shore.

 

Michael John Otanes, 22, is a graduating AB English student of Mindanao State University-General Santos City.

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