Most everyone has “down days,” times when they feel depressed or lonely or abandoned. Then the weather improves, the sun comes out, and they feel better. Or they get good news, or finish a task, or hear some sweet song from their memory or see something beautiful, and the bad feelings just seems to melt like an ice cream at a July 4th picnic.
Then there are those of us who fight with depression or loneliness like the zombies, orcs and trolls from the World of Warcraft. No matter how effective your weaponry seems to be, they just seem to keep coming from some pit in the computer: a tireless, endless, undying mudslide of enemies determined to sap your life and leave you staring at a screen that says, “Game Over,” after you lost.
But there is hope; okay, probably not for a gamer; the geeks are just going to keep programming better and better demons until no one can really win. Never having played an online role-playing game, I can only imagine, which is all I want to do about computer games. But there is hope for those of us who struggle with real demons, and whose computers are only our brains.
Did I say, “only our brains?” Our human brains are so far advanced over other animals, even chimpanzees, that the comparison is like a rocket to a tricycle. And even a chimp’s brain compared to a mechanical computer is like a skyscraper to a grain of sand! You have in your three pounds of gray jello about 100,000,000,000 neurons! That’s one hundred billion! With multiple connections, up to thousands, between any two adjacent cells, your brain has more connections than there are stars in the observable universe!
Thus when one approaches depression or loneliness of a clinical proportion (that is, depression that does not respond to improved weather or circumstance, or loneliness that isolates a person even when surrounded with many loving family members and lots of friends), there are likely to be several causes, and the interaction and complexity of these factors would baffle even the warlords from World of Warcraft.
Since psychiatry has evolved verrrrrry slowly over the past 150 years, there is hope outside this avenue. Psychiatrists basically treat patients with the same formula with which they treated Abraham Lincoln in the 1830s. They ask you questions and then prescribe a treatment based on your answers. The drugs have improved, and the history of their use has afforded more evidence of their effectiveness, but it is still based on self-reported symptoms. There are many excellent psychiatrists around, caring and attentive doctors who really listen to and effectively treat some of their patients, but I suspect if one has a 50/50 shot at getting a good psychologist for therapy, he might have a 1/50 shot of getting a good psychiatrist.
With such dismal expectations from psychiatry and psychology, then where can we find hope? The first recourse is spiritual: we can find hope by trusting that The God Who Is There really cares about each of us. Sure, He has 7,000,000,000 people on the earth to care about right now, not counting the 7,000,000,000 who have already lived here, but remember the Mind we are talking about: One who tells the stars where to stand in the galaxies, One who can change the DNA of a leper’s cells, the One who created you for His purposes. Do a word-search of “hope” in the Psalms and see if you do not find good news there! Do the same in Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet.” Even there, God promises hope to all who trust in Him.
“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalms 42:11)
“We hoped for peace but no good has come, for a time of healing but there is only terror.
We acknowledge our wickedness, Lord, and the guilt of our ancestors;
we have indeed sinned against You.
For the sake of Your name do not despise us;
do not dishonor Your glorious throne.
Remember Your covenant with us and do not break it.
Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain?
Do the skies themselves send down showers?
No, it is You, Lord our God.
Therefore our hope is in You, for You are the one who does all this.” (Jeremiah 14:19-22)
Secondly, there are behavioral remedies. For many of these it would be helpful to speak with a good counselor, whether psychologist or psychiatrist, but essentially, the recommendations you will get will be designed to help you with your brain’s plasticity, and they can help here! Though in the past, the assumptions were that your number and size and function of brain cells was set at birth, research has shown that the number, size and function of your brain cells is variable and can be increased no matter what one’s age! (Beware: poor diet, lack of exercise and behavior modification can also decrease the number, size and function of your brain cells!)
Chemically, we can increase the neural chemical signals occurring between our neurons; this can affect short term memory or short term improvement in motor skills.
Structurally, we can change which neurons are connected to which ones. This takes longer than chemical changes to occur; this affects long term memory or longer improvements in motor skills.
We can even effectively alter the function of some of our brain cells: i.e. “use it or lose it” applies here. These are all changes you choose to do; by choosing to learn something new you activate or excite portions of your brain. Alternatively, by refusing to learn something new you close down the excitation of those areas of your brain, both chemically and eventually structurally and functionally.
Together, these chemical, structural and functional changes, tend to work in concert with each other. “The bus driver for neuroplastic change in your brain is behavior. There is currently no neuroplasticity drug you can take.” (Dr. Lara Boyd, PhD) The key is that the amount of behavioral changes needed to produce the structural and functional changes in the brain is very large compared to that required to produce chemical changes. But it is not impossible! Piano teachers call it “motor-memory.” The more often you do something, good or bad, the more easily you can do it next time.
Thirdly, you can challenge your thoughts! This feature of self-awareness may be the best description of what differs between humans and lower animals. Without training, if you point at a ball you want a dog to pick up, he will come and smell your finger. Only by Pavlov’s system of repeated association can an animal learn to respond to directions; there is no evidence of self-evaluation. However, we do not learn only by repeated association. Though some human learning takes place in this way, we have the advantage of learning to learn. We can ask if we are learning, and even challenge what we are learning.
“You say, Dr. Amen. You’ve been a psychiatrist for over thirty years. What is the single most important thing people can do to improve brain function? ‘Don’t believe every stupid thought you have.’ Have this little question in your head: Is it true? When you question your thoughts you live in a more rational world.” (Dr Daniel Amen, MD, PhD) By challenging your thoughts, you may find your reasons for depression decreasing in strength, and your loneliness may begin to be alleviated, the orcs may begin losing their numbers and power.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
This was the concept of Socrates’ “unexamined life.” By examining your life, your thoughts, your behavior, perhaps you will find yourself becoming healthier and happier. Perhaps you will find hope that the game will not be over until you are ready for it to end.