I don’t know everything, but I am willing to be open minded and learn.
I occasionally get asked by people who want to know whether they should take anti-depressants or other medications to treat their various mental and emotional symptoms. To be clear, I do not give advice on such matters. First of all I am not qualified in that department. I have not studied the various drugs, what symptoms they each treat, or their efficacy.
I’ve heard and read from people that their medication(s) have saved their life and marriage. I’ve also heard and read from people who have spent time on medications and had no improvement to their condition, and then been troubled with increased side effects when they attempted to stop taking the medication.
What I can conclude is that there is not yet a simple bio-chemical explanation ad treatment for mental and emotional states like depression and anxiety. No one has a magic pill. Furthermore, each person’s situation is different. With that said, I think each person has to do what works for them. I come from a practical engineering background, so my approach towards changing emotional states has always been to about doing anything that will help move a person in the direction of greater happiness. I don’t have any single tool or practice that will completely do the job for anyone, but instead provide a toolbox of techniques and practices to address the myriad of beliefs and thoughts causing emotional suffering. If a person chooses to use medication to treat their emotional and mental state, that is fine. If it helps a person that is suffering to feel better, then by all means consider it.
My suggestion is to consider that the battle for internal peace and happiness can have other fronts as well, and to consider addressing the negative thoughts and false beliefs as well. My personal approach has been through practical tools of mindfulness and awareness. It’s not easy, even for my clients who aren’t starting out in a state of depression or extreme anxiety. It takes motivation, time, practice, and persistence. Not everyone has a ready reserve of these resources available when they start addressing their emotional state and behaviors with the intent to change them.
In short, I don’t think a person can address all that emotionally ails them with answer. The sum of our emotional and mental state is a complex system. For a person to address it comprehensively and effectively will take more effort than answering a single question about chemical imbalance.
A Wider Understanding of the Challenge
Some of the common thought about depression, and other emotions, has been that they are caused by a chemical imbalance. This was first proposed in the 60′s when some studies showed a correlation between depression and low levels of neurotransmitters. In spite of many studies, in the last 50 years there has been no evidence to prove a chemical imbalance causes depression or other mental illness and emotional disorders.
In the meantime, we could make a case for the exact opposite. What if your mental and emotional state affected your physical chemistry? Dopamine and serotonin levels might be correlated, but what if their level changes were caused by your emotional state instead of causing them?
Consider a scenario where you are going about your day and you imagine something bad happening. It could be losing your job, ending up homeless, your partner cheating on you, getting in an accident, or just embarrassing your self in front of others. The last one is the kind of thing that wouldn’t be as intense, but could also be something you could imagine numerous times a day. Your imagination constructs an imagined scenario and in this scenario you experience the event happening to you. Much like a dream, this is a day dream. And much like a dream, our physiology and emotions can respond as if it were really happening. The response from our emotions and physiology would be the same as if it were real. Our body would be producing all sorts of emotions like fear, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, guilt, or anger, except the cause would be our imagination.
When that emotional and physiological response happens in our body neurons fire in our brain, our heart speeds up in a fight or flight response, and chemicals like adrenalin are introduced into the system. The result is that you’ve just changed the chemical balance in your body because of what you imagined, thought about, believed, or the day dream you had. You could do it right now just by imagining a horrific scenario and feeling your emotions and body respond.
While we might not notice any big negative thoughts or emotional reactions like ending up homeless very often during the day, but we might have a lot of little ones. A little thought creates a little imagined scenario and releases a small amount of adrenaline with other chemicals. If you add up the number of negative thoughts during your day you might find dozens or hundreds of negative thoughts that your mind forms into scenarios that your physiology and emotions respond to. One of these thoughts might not seem like much, but when you are having dozens or hundreds of negative thoughts, it can take a toll chemically and physically day after day.
What I propose is that you might very well have a chemical imbalance, but that’s not the cause of your emotional state, it’s just a symptom. The cause of the emotional state like depression and anxiety is your thoughts, and beliefs. These thoughts and beliefs can be conscious, however many of them may be unconscious to you. It’s unlikely that you are aware of every thought that passes through your mind, or the beliefs that thought arises from. However, this doesn’t stop your the neurotransmitters in your brain and nervous system from firing as well as a chemical and emotional responses. There is more on how the mind affects our emotions in another article.
I’m not an expert on brain chemistry, neurotransmitters, and the effect of things like dopamine levels. But from what I can tell from reading articles on the matter, neither is anyone else. No one has been able to tell what “normal” levels are, or how these things affect our emotions. So far, the idea that a chemical imbalance causes depression or anxiety is just a theory. In the more than 50 years of studies, there has been no proof that depression, anxiety, or mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances. On the other hand, it seems to have been disproven a number of times. However these myth debunkings don’t seem to get as much press or marketing coverage from businesses that profit in the industry.
“Studies suggest that the popular drugs are no more effective than a placebo. In fact, they may be worse.”
“Yes, the drugs are effective, in that they lift depression in most patients. But that benefit is hardly more than what patients get when they, unknowingly and as part of a study, take a dummy pill—a placebo. As more and more scientists who study depression and the drugs that treat it are concluding, that suggests that antidepressants are basically expensive Tic Tacs. Hence the moral dilemma. The placebo effect—that is, a medical benefit you get from an inert pill or other sham treatment—rests on the holy trinity of belief, expectation, and hope.” Sharon Begley
The Chemical Imbalance Myth by Kas Thomas
“Then there’s the somewhat curious fact that tianeptine, an antidepressant marketed for many years under the name Coaxil in Europe and South America, is actually a selective serotonin reuptake enhancer (not inhibitor). So apparently, some depression is caused by too much serotonin.
Researchers who’ve tried to induce depressive symptoms in normal subjects by lowering their endogenous serotonin levels (through a well-known dietary trick) have consistently been unable to do so. (E.g., Salomon et al., “Lack of behavioral effects of monoamine depletion in healthy subjects,” Biological Psychiatry, 1 January 1997, 41:1, 58–64.) This elementary result is rarely discussed.”
So, in answer to that question, “Do I have a chemical imbalance?” The answer might be yes. But it doesn’t mean that those chemicals are the cause of your emotions, depression, or anxiety. If this was an exact science then there would be a way to measure chemistry and prescribe the right amount of chemicals to balance the system. But not only is there no way to effectively measure, but there is no guaranteed correlation with making you feel different. You are likely to have as much luck by taking a placebo.
So where are those emotions coming from? Those imbalanced chemicals and emotions, might just be byproducts from a negative thoughts or belief running through your head. For practical exercises for changing the negative thoughts and beliefs try the Free Sessions of the Self Mastery Course.
At the same time, my coursework and approach is not right for everyone, and maybe not right for certain people at certain times. It is certainly not a solution for people in crisis, or for people in dangerous mental and emotional states. A person’s path of solutions in addressing their needs depends on many factors including the severity of their emotional challenges, and the resources of time, energy, motivation, and clarity they have at the time. It is naive to think that one could get all the clarity they need on this issue from one article, one person, or in one day. Each person has to choose what is best for them.
I want to reiterate that I don’t know everything. The last 20 years of my life has been an exploration of awareness, consciousness, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and how they are all connected. This is a fragment of our whole makeup, but from my experience, an important part of our make up. It is also the most changeable. That is not to say changing beliefs that affect our emotions is easy. I’m just sharing a small piece of the picture.
What I do know is that each person has to make their own choices. This article is not a case against medication. Mastering your mind and emotions is a challenge, and if medication helps people in challenging times, then good. For others, it may not be the whole solution they are looking for, and they may want to expand their inquiry into changing the negative thoughts and false beliefs as these can be a cause of emotions as well.
Hope this helps people look at issues with a sense that there may be more than one thing to address.