A woman rips apart a black-and-white photograph of herself when she was depressed, and smiles.
Break through the fog of depression. You can do it! (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Depression and anxiety are both common and potentially serious health issues.

In fact, approximately 10 percent of us suffer from one of these disorders, with anxiety being more common in women than in men.

The symptoms of anxiety and depression can go away and come back throughout life if left untreated, and many people find it difficult to admit they have anxiety or depression, thinking there isn’t a cure for what they are experiencing. Fortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

A few months ago, a patient I’ll call Cindy came to see me for her annual visit. She started to talk about her life and how she was feeling down most of the time. She didn’t understand why she was feeling this way—everything seemed like it should be nearly perfect.

Cindy is married, has three great kids and a part-time job she enjoys. She also has a strong group of friends at church and her parents live nearby, so she really feels like she has a good life.

As I probed a bit further with questions, she admitted she had been feeling down for about three months and wondered if she would ever feel like her old self again.

Her kids are doing well, but they are becoming busier with sports, church and school. Of course, this meant that Cindy is becoming busier as well. Although she generally isn’t feeling stressed or anxious, she started noticing some changes in herself: doubting how well she could handle her busy life, losing interest in playing games with her kids, making excuses to avoid going out with friends, cooking less (something she once loved to do), losing interest in sex, and exercising less.

When I asked Cindy about her extended family, she said that her mom had suffered from depression during Cindy’s childhood, and she remembers her mom withdrawing and spending quite a bit of time in her bedroom.

Cindy felt that her mom didn’t really know her and was never supportive of anything she wanted to do. In fact, when Cindy wanted to join the cheer team in high school, her mom would not take her to practice, and never encouraged Cindy to practice on her own or exercise to stay in shape. In addition, her mom always seemed sad and unusually quiet, her dad worked long hours and was never home, and her brother kept to himself most of the time.

Cindy obviously didn’t have a perfect childhood. She once had big dreams of attending college, but those dreams never materialized. She hadn’t thought about her college dreams in a long time, but talking to me about her childhood stirred up some old memories.

On a positive note, Cindy doesn’t drink much alcohol, never smoked, and eats a fairly healthy diet. She also walks the dog around her neighborhood daily, but she didn’t follow an intense workout program. Although she feels OK with her weight, she admits that she would feel better if she lost a few pounds.

Cindy just wanted to know how she could feel better. I certainly understand Cindy’s frustrations, and I was anxious to figure out why she was feeling this way and help her develop a plan to move forward.

I talked with her about anxiety and depression. We first looked at common risk factors of both: genetics (family history), low self esteem, prior traumatic events, abuse or neglect, substance abuse and early onset of anxiety and depression.

Cindy obviously had at least one of these factors in her life. We also talked about other reasons people struggle with these issues.

Anxiety and depression can be related to life events (past and present), but they can also be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. The analogy I use to explain our brain chemistry goes something like this: brain chemicals are like money in the bank—we only have so much to spend before we run out. We make brain chemicals when we sleep, and genetically (linked to many genes), some of us make more than others. We spend brain chemical on life events, which can cause our supply to get low.

For Cindy, life events (busy kids, busy husband, busy household) were causing her to use her supply of brain chemicals. She also had unresolved issues come to the surface: her kids getting to do things she never did in her childhood, her husband working long hours (just like her dad did), and thinking more about her earlier dreams of college. Add to all of this a little weight gain, and you can imagine the stress Cindy felt.

When we have unresolved issues on our minds (like Cindy did), they cost brain chemicals. Sometimes we may not even be aware of some of the things that are floating around in our head. So, when our friends ask us out for coffee or it is time to make dinner, we don’t have enough brain chemicals to propel us forward. We slowly start to shut down, and life starts to pass us by. Depression can set in and affect not only ourselves, but our family, friends and co-workers as well.

There are several common symptoms of depression that you can look out for, including feeling down most days, losing interest in usual things, sleeping too much or not enough, losing or gaining weight, feeling unable to concentrate or think clearly, and thinking you are not good enough.

If depression is left untreated, other issues can arise, such as anxiety, diabetes, heart disease and thyroid disease.

In order to help Cindy, I first ordered some lab work, which included her blood count, thyroid levels, body chemistry function, vitamin levels, and sugar levels. All came back normal. My hope was that we could work together to treat her symptoms.

Cindy felt a sense of relief just getting her worries off her chest, and she became hopeful when I told her she wasn’t crazy. Her experiences are normal, common and treatable.

I first recommended that she see a therapist who practiced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help her sort out issues from her past. I also suggested more exercise in her daily routine, even if it is in small amounts (like 10,000 steps per day).

And, finally, I recommended a short-term course of medicine from a group called SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). These drugs increase the brain chemical levels so there is “more money in the bank” to help people like Cindy get back on track and stop the downward spiral.

Cindy came to see me two months later, and she felt much more like herself again—hooray!

She had seen her therapist several times and had started a very low dose of the medication. She also developed a meal and exercise plan that worked well. Her kids and husband had noticed, and commented that they had missed having fun with her and were happy to have her back.

Cindy started to think about her part-time job and maybe quitting so she could go back to school. She had coffee with a friend and realized how good it felt to stay connected and laugh again.

I have no doubt that Cindy will be fine, but she will always have to be aware of her feelings, or even ask a friend to check in with her if she notices any new symptoms Cindy might be displaying. Cindy will inevitably experience stressful events in her future (we all will), so she will always be at risk for starting a downward spiral at some point.

However, with treatment and awareness, she should live a happy, connected and fulfilled life.