Depression afflicts us all at some point. It may be the more difficult, internal, life-changing kind or the post-injury, temporary loss of performance kind. It is deflating, demoralizing, and debilitating, yet the cause is often invisible.
The drugs prescribed to combat depression have been so remarkably unsuccessful that their record parallels that of most talk therapies, which may last for years or even decades. Most of these drugs try to balance the neurotransmitters in the brain, but often at the expense of other brain chemistry—meaning that balancing one chemical may lead to a suppression of other chemicals, causing such side effects as sleeplessness or impotence. And all these drugs potentially require a lifetime of use, as none are meant to be curative.
Other anti-depression therapies, such as electroshock (ECT), were meant to be curative, but were initially so destructive to other parts of the brain that long-term negative personality traits were produced. Refinement of ECT has made it much less invasive and more effective at treating depression, though still with significant risks—so many still see it as a solution of last resort.
Today, other drugs and therapies are being studied. Recent successes with psychedelics—including psilocybin, ketamine, MDMA, and LSD are encouraging. These substances fundamentally work by providing a new perspective and permitting a person to see themselves freed from the psychological chains that have held them captive. A person’s ability to see himself or herself as a happy, independent, successful person gives them permission to actually be that person, even when the primary effects of the transformative drugs have worn off. The dramatic successes frequently reported with these drugs as part of guided therapies (as opposed to recreational use) to address PTSD and addiction make us wonder if we could free ourselves from our mental entrapments without the use of pharmaceuticals. (Some of this work has been popularized in the recent best-seller by Michel Pollan, How to Change Your Mind.)
The question is, why can’t we all always will ourselves to relative health and happiness? The answer is, maybe we can. Sometimes we may just need a little help to do so.
Common, usually transient depressions—such as after knee surgery (ACL depression syndrome) or post-partum—respond remarkably well to exercise therapy. The testosterone, pheromones, and adrenaline released by a great, sweat producing workout do wonders to elevate one’s mood. It makes us wonder what other naturally circulating hormones can be induced to rise to the required occasions, and which activities can target those endogenous chemicals.
Chocolate, the “food of love,” is known to contain specific compounds that slow the breakdown of anandamides, called “bliss compounds,” from the receptors in the brain. What if a concentrated chocolate compound, formulated without fat or sugar, could be optimized for brain therapy?
Meditation and massage therapy lower blood pressure and the levels of stress hormones through different pathways. While both require skilled teachers and practitioners to help a person relax, the skills of meditation can be learned and used by individuals to reduce the depressive states caused by stress.
Now that we know there is a path toward actually curing depression our job is to expand the ways to help people free themselves from the depression trap. While not all depressions are the same—and some may not be amenable to any curative process—we don’t actually know how many can, in fact, be cured. Using the insights gained from experiments with the psychedelic experience, and those from a variety of internal hormone manipulations, we now have the opportunity to explore exciting new pathways that allow us to see ourselves from different perspectives—since all of us may, at some time, feel the oppressive weight of seemingly intractable mental stress.