All in your head

So, you have that fantastic job, or better still, you own the company. You have a beautiful spouse, someone who cares about you, lovely children, great friends, the house you have dreamt about. Money is not a problem, but you are still unhappy. You feel like something is missing in life. You really shouldn’t feel this way, but you do and can’t quite put a finger on why this is happening. No amount of fun can set you right. You feel like a car stuck in the mud, wheels spinning furiously, but you are getting nowhere.

You aren’t alone. Welcome to the depression club, where being really sad for no apparent reason is the entry criteria. You will meet all kinds of cool people here. The prevalence of major depression is 7 per cent in the US—that’s about 17 million people who cannot function because their brains don’t let them. Throw in bipolar disorder, which is associated with extreme mood swings, and the rate goes up to 10 per cent.

So, why does this happen? As always, the answer is never simple. The human brain is a real complex organ. When you feel that tugging in your heart, it is actually your brain releasing chemicals that make you think that the heart is the problem. Like most things in life, it is already decided for you—I am not talking about fate here, I am talking about your genetic code, or maybe that is what 'written in your fate' means. This abnormality in your genetic code causes a slight change in the chemicals in your brain, and you are a train wreck waiting to happen. Throw in that stressful emotional event, loss of job, financial issue or your love breaking your heart (I mean brain), and you are in a full-blown crisis that you will not be able to tackle without professional help.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Depression doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you are strong, beautiful, intelligent, successful, good or evil, it will bring you to your knees. You hear about all these famous personalities taking their lives, when they seem to have everything. Depression will turn you into a grovelling shadow of yourself. Unfortunately, due to the stigma associated with mental illness, a lot of people don’t get professional help. Seeking help seems like you are a weak person. Nothing is farther from the truth. Untreated, the brain plays tricks with you, with your relationships, your job, dissociates you from reality. It even convinces you that the only way out is to hurt yourself. Real morbid stuff, I know, but with professional therapy, using medications and psychotherapy most people can be helped. There is no permanent cure, though.

The brain can be broken down into four parts. You have the brainstem, which regulates body functions like breathing, regulation of the heart, gut and reflex behaviour. That time you were dancing on the table after a few drinks—that is your brainstem behaviour. There is the cerebral system, which deals with rational function, behaviour and reasoning. It also deals with finer actions like performing surgery, painting and math. The cerebellum coordinates movements. The troublemaker is buried deep in the brain, called the limbic system. A bridge between the other two, where emotions and memories are stored. That feeling in your gut that something is not quite right—that is your hippocampus warning you based on experiences. All those emotions you feel, the highs, the lows are all due to a small change in neurotransmitters.

If you really think about it, no pun intended here, we all live in our own matrix, something along the lines of the movie, The Matrix. The world our brain creates is a make-believe world, a figment of our imagination. There is rational thought and then there is emotion. Emotion is what your brain makes it out to be. All those feelings of jealousy, love, success, failure and anger are all in your head, literally. We are legends and failures in our own mind.

It is actually quite humbling to realise that all our lives can be summed up as trying to satisfy the whims and fancies of some brain tissue. That all our complex feelings are actually a little change in neurotransmitters, happiness is nothing but a burst of dopamine. The world we create ends when we die, which is nothing but the brain switching off, like a light switch being turned off. The redemption you are seeking, it is in your head. If you think about it, you don’t need a priest, you need a psychiatrist.