Insecurity? Issues focusing? Negative thoughts? Memory issues? What causes it all? These are common problems with depression. Lately, neuropsychological science has discovered a lot about the effect of long-term stress on the functioning of our brain. Below, we summarize some of the insights.

Memory issues in stress and depression in the hippocampus

When long-term stress stimulates our adrenal glands, a long-term production of stress hormones is triggered, including the hormone cortisol. This long-term overstimulation of cortisol in our brain negatively affects on the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of our brain which is responsible for memory. Our memory makes it so that we can link experiences from the past to the present and make plans for the future. Because of this overstimulation, cells in the hippocampus start dying and the hippocampus can shrink with a reduction of up to 9%, professor Klaus Grawe from the University of Bern states. So it is indeed so that we forget more and poorly remember things in a depression, as there are fewer brain cells which take care of our memories.

Pessimism and loss of optimism in depression or stress

The hippocampus has many connections to another part of our brain, too, namely the prefrontal cortex. The left prefrontal cortex is responsible for our positive thoughts and feelings, and the right prefrontal cortex is in charge of our negative thoughts and feelings. With long-term stress, the hippocampus issue is combined with fewer connections to the prefrontal cortex, meaning this, too, is degraded. The size of the prefrontal cortex decreases. Especially the left side, which is the first to reduce in size. As a result thereof, the positive thoughts and feelings will become less prominent or even are gone completely, meaning only the negative feelings are left. So your optimism disappears and you become pessimistic because only your negative feelings remain with you.

Loss of all feelings in depression, burnout, and stress

If your stress and depression continue on beyond this, your right prefrontal cortex will eventually also shrink and shut off. This means that even your negative thoughts and feelings become silent, meaning you will eventually be apathetically stuck in one place, having lost every bit of life joy and initiative.

Loss of hope and future oriented thinking in stress and depression

Another function of the prefrontal cortex is that it helps in making future plans. When your prefrontal cortex reduces in size, you will end up not seeing a future. You cannot think about it anymore, nor think about things linked to the future, such as hope, making plans, getting organized, or focusing on goals you want to work toward.. They all are shut off, step by step. It seems like there is nothing you can do anymore.

How do you cure a depression?

The same research gives us hopeful news. Just like a muscle which has not been used, the amount of cells and the volume of the brain decrease in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. What is good, is that we can retrain muscles which have become weak, with the help of training. The same thing goes for our brain. Our brain is even more flexible in rebuilding functions which have been on 'standby' for a period of time. It is even better at recovering than our muscles are.

Training your brain with depression

Of course, all training requires commitment. Training of the brain to reactivate your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex takes a few weeks - in case of a minor depression that is; a major, long-term depression can take several months to become fully operational again. We developed simple exercises which help you to reactive your brain in order to rid yourself of your depression or burnout. These exercises can be done from home, using your computer. By following the online self-help program, you are stimulated daily to keep these exercises going until your brain function has fully recovered.

Do I have a depression?

If you want to know if you suffer from depression or stress, you can take our easy online test with 21 questions, after which you will get a response to the question above shown in 3 simple graphs. You can then see where you are currently standing, and if you want you can take the test again in a few weeks or months to check your development. This helps you see whether the therapy, treatment, or self-help which you use is helping you.

Paul Koeck, MD