What Happens in Our Brain When We're Depressed?

What Happens in Our Brain When We're Depressed?

Last update: 25 March, 2015

We’re still learning about the brain, this most magnificent and mysterious organ. How are certain emotions – like sadness – defined by a depressed brain? Most of us will experience depression and sadness at some point during our journey through life. These events can be sad, it’s true. But they can also be revealing.

We all get sad from time to time. It’s a basic human emotion – much like joy, fear or anger. When you experience it, your brain behaves differently and produces a series of simultaneous effects that you’re not always conscious of. Perhaps you feel more hunger or fatigue. Maybe you seek solitude or have an overwhelming desire to cry. If you’re interested in knowing the purpose of all these mental reactions, it can be an important first step in facing sadness and overcoming it as quickly as possible. When you learn these strategies, you can prevent more serious illnesses – depression, for example – that can have negative implications for your health and your life.

When depression takes hold in the brain


Did you ever imagine that feeling sad can actually have an impact on your metabolism?  What do we mean by that? Well, when our minds and bodies undergo external upheaval – things like loss, disappointment or the negative consequences of a decision – all of our organs are affected. Let’s explore how these emotions happen in the brain and what their effects are.

The importance of empathy

The brain handles sadness with a variety of defence mechanisms. In humans, this is the most recognisable emotion. When you see someone else, you immediately know whether or not they are experiencing it. In other words, you have empathy for them. This skill allows you to support people when they’re sad. Everyone understands the value of having a support network of friends or family. Curiously, some studies suggest that empathy tends to be more developed in women.

Glucose: energy for the brain


Contrary to what you might believe, the brain is incredibly active during episodes of depression.  This might seem strange, but scientific studies have illustrated that the brain is active in 70 regions of the cerebrum when we are depressed. It’s easy to understand why when you consider that, in a depressive state, you remember, think, suffer and search for solutions or alternatives. Sleep becomes difficult because you are pondering so many different things. The hippocampus – the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain – is especially active, along with the anterior cingulate cortex and the temporal lobes.

Take into account, as well, that your brain requires almost 20% of your energy when it’s running at full capacity. But when you’re depressed, it uses even more – and glucose is its main fuel. You’ll feel hungrier than usual and anxiety will increase your appetite. You’ll seek out sweet foods. This explains why some sufferers gain weight as a result of depression.

Don’t be afraid to cry

Crying eyes
Crying is natural and necessary for releasing tension and emotions.

Unshakeable periods of sadness result in the accumulation of tension in the body. Although tears serve the biological function of hydrating the eyes, you can easily differentiate this from tears that occur in response to certain emotions. However, they’re both of these processes are essential for your health. Tension and anxiety need to be released – and tears are the best way to achieve this. After a thorough crying session, endorphins are released and you feel relieved, more relaxed. We’d recommend that you let it all out! Don’t suppress a good cry if you feel one coming on.

How to avoid bad episodes of depression

Periods of sadness can teach us new things and make us stronger.

Sad brains generate more serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is most associated with motivation. If you find it difficult to move on from a period of sadness, consider your serotonin levels. If you can’t make decisions or accept the event that triggered the episode, this serotonin deficit will almost certainly have a negative effect. You may begin to suffer from depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or violent episodes. Try to stay strong and find new resources that will help you break out of this debilitating loop. Make these times of self-reflection work for you.

Let’s end things on a positive note. Depression can help you live and learn Life isn’t always easy. You will encounter hurdles that you’ll need to get over, you’ll decide which path to take – but these are experiences that can teach you valuable lessons about yourself, if you’ll let them. When you’ve made it through these dark times, you will be stronger and more capable.