Even Happy People Can Get Depressed When Stress and Grief Stack Up

Lilly Melgar

Can you be a happy-go-lucky type of person for most of your life and then fall into depression in mid-life or beyond? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

Stress is a constant in modern-day life. Deadlines at work, tension in relationships, mounting debt—they all cause stress. But what about when tragedy is added to the mix? Like a loved one is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, a marriage crumbles, or a pandemic hits. Or do all of them happen at once? When serious setbacks in life are piled on top of everyday stressors, it can be too much to bear, and even typically cheerful people can become depressed.

When serious setbacks in life are piled on top of everyday stressors, it can be too much to bear, and even typically cheerful people can become depressed. Click To Tweet

WHEN A SUNNY OUTLOOK SINKS INTO DEPRESSION

This is the situation that actress (“General Hospital” and “The Bold and the Beautiful”) and producer Lilly Melgar found herself in recently. In an episode of Scan My Brain, she explained to clinical psychiatrist Jay Faber, MD, that she’d been through the proverbial wringer in the last few years.

After a challenging marriage during which she felt like she was in constant fight-or-flight mode, she lived through what she called “an unnecessarily chaotic divorce.” The experience did a number on her nervous system, leaving her feeling exhausted and drained.

As if that wasn’t enough, the night before the pandemic lockdown began in 2020, her former husband took his own life. A month later, Melgar’s father was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, but she couldn’t be with him due to the quarantine. Not long after that, her beloved dog died too. It was one tragedy after another.

It was all too much for Melgar, who says she used to be a happy person by nature. Her usual sunny disposition and drive disappeared, and she says, “I discovered depression, insomnia, and lack of motivation.”

To see how the compounded grief and stress were affecting her brain, Melgar visited Amen Clinics for a brain SPECT scan. She was hoping for answers to help her overcome the pain and sadness.

STRESS AND GRIEF IN THE BRAIN

Emotional trauma and stress impact the brain in many ways. In many people, stacked stresses, pain, and loss are associated with overactivity in the emotional centers of the brain. Among other findings, that’s what Melgar saw on her own brain scan—overactivity in the basal ganglia, anterior cingulate gyrus, and thalamus (part of the deep limbic system).

  • Basal ganglia: This set of large structures toward the center of the brain is involved with setting the body’s anxiety When there is too much activity in the basal ganglia, people are more likely to be anxious, nervous, and worried, and they have trouble sleeping.
  • Anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG): The ACG is the brain’s gear shifter, which helps you go from thought to thought or from one action to another. When there is overactivity in the ACG, people tend to get stuck on negative thoughts or behaviors.
  • Deep limbic system: The limbic system includes the thalamus (involved in relaying information), amygdala (fear center), hippocampus (memory center), hypothalamus (emotional center), and olfactory cortex (sense of smell). Too much activity here is often seen in people with depression.

HOW TO CALM AN OVERACTIVE BRAIN

As Dr. Faber explained to Melgar, with the right strategies, it is possible to calm an overactive brain. Some lifestyle changes that promote calm include:

  • Nutritional supplements: GABA, magnesium, and lemon balm encourage relaxation.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing: Practice deep belly breathing when you feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed.
  • Calming diet: Eat anti-anxiety foods.
  • ANT therapy: Learn to challenge the automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that make you focus on grief or that increase your stress levels.
  • Meditate or try hypnosis: These practices calm stress and anxiety.
  • EMDR therapy: EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) has been shown to help overcome emotional issues related to trauma.

Emotional trauma, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

6 Comments »

  1. This sounds exactly like me. I’ve been trying to pull myself out of this depression for years. Can you work with people on line. I don’t feel like a brain scan is needed or know this is exactly what is wrong with me. I just want to feel hopeful again for more than a fleeting moment. I want to be inspired & give others inspiration again. I want to want things again bad enough to work for them.

    Comment by Donna Comstock — January 14, 2022 @ 7:22 AM

  2. Hello Donna, thank you for reaching out. We offer a wide range of services beyond just SPECT scans to meet the individual needs of our diverse patient population: https://www.amenclinics.com/services/. We are also offering Telehealth and Video Therapy options. For more information about Telehealth: https://www.amenclinics.com/services/telehealth-and-video-therapy/.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — January 14, 2022 @ 10:29 AM

  3. Glad I got to watch this.

    Comment by Kathy Stockdale — January 14, 2022 @ 12:51 PM

  4. I feel your pain Donna. In my late 30s I had a career I loved and so much enthusiasm and drive. Until I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. After multiple surgeries and constant pain I began to struggle with my workload. Then sweeping changes happened at work that left me feeling like I could no longer keep up. Then my father died suddenly. I had a full blown mental meltdown. I never imagined that would happen to me. I had to leave a career I loved and worked hard for. If it hadn’t been for the doctors and my amazing husband, I would have taken my own life. It’s been nearly 4 years and I’m better, but still struggling daily and can’t fathom trying to work in this condition. I hope someday there will be a medication that turns down those overly active areas of the brain with greater accuracy and fewer side effects.

    Comment by MJ — January 15, 2022 @ 8:13 AM

  5. I need help with depression and anxiety and a slew of symptoms

    Comment by Al Gallo — January 16, 2022 @ 9:34 AM

  6. Hello Al Gallo, thank you for reaching out. Amen Clinics currently has 9 locations: https://www.amenclinics.com/locations/. For more information about scheduling, please contact our Care Coordinators: https://www.amenclinics.com/schedule-visit/.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — January 18, 2022 @ 3:13 PM

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