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.

11 Comments »

  1. What are your recommended doses and frequency for GABA, magnesium, and lemon balm?

    Comment by Lisa Picker — January 14, 2022 @ 3:58 AM

  2. 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

  3. I can totally relate…that plus menopause combined are making me feel ill never get back to baseline. I used to be so joyful…. Will y’all ever start taking insurance? My two boys need help with trauma, also.

    Comment by Kristy Sharp — January 14, 2022 @ 8:48 AM

  4. I am compelled to write and leave my own personal experience to the above story of loss, and severe trauma suffered by Lily Melgar. ….Wow, and wow, again….! I can feel the stress, and the deep loss she must have experienced due to wave after wave of so much loss in her life. I began a similar journey just six years ago this month..when I was suddenly hospitalized for a bowel obstruction. I had no time to arrange for my animal care, and as I was unable to connect with my son, I reached out to my closest friend, who was about 5 hours away. It was January, and it was cold and snowy …and he came , despite this awful weather, to care for me. I was in hospital for 15 days, with complications from pneumonia, along with major abdominal surgery…so it was a physical blow . When I came home, I was extremely weak, and not in control of anything…I lost 22 lb..and had no strength. It took weeks to recover from the pneumonia…and in February I was convinced to “re home” some of my beloved animals…one of which had been a personal rescue. I didn’t know how this would affect me later…The guilt since then has been overwhelming. I felt , and still feel , that I abandoned them to an uncertain fate….and I am deeply depressed over this betrayal on my part.
    As well, I was unable to financially afford my home, so in April, I was persuaded to move, again by someone else overseeing this entire plan. So there I was, without my beloved rescues, leaving a home I loved, and still recovering from major surgery…now, I see it as the perfect ‘recipe for disaster”….from the frying pan into the fire.
    The new home was not in the neighborhood I had loved, and I was distraught…and then emotionally attacked by the new landlords…they were completely crazy, and verbally abusive toward me….and I was terrified for the next several months. At last , after 16 months of Hell , I was finally able to leave, financially ruined, lighter in animals…who I held on to like grim death itself…having lost everything I knew and loved, including about 30% of my hair…another stressor…driving an old car , feeling like a complete failure. When I left the house of horrors, I had NOWHERE To go, so for a few weeks I was technically “homeless”…no response from family , at all.
    It was due to my own resourcefulness that I found the home I am in now…a safe, and cozy place, albeit a basement apt….and I do have 3 of my animals with me, thanks to a very kind landlord.
    I see so clearly now, the absolute cruel, randomness of life, but I also see the light, and the fierce will to just “live” another day.
    And a footnote to all of this…the “best friend” who helped me during those darkest of days? He died, just 3 years later, in 2019…by suicide. He was a lost soul, and because of him, I lost a great deal…while being allowed to live…so it is a conflicted feeling I have now…remembering him, and all that he did….he is gone, and I am here, moving on , alone. I miss him, but I still miss the animals I gave away, because of him….so it is still with me.
    I am 77, on my own, with no real help at all…so it remains to be seen whether any of it has been ‘worth it”….
    I am happy to be alive, and to have my darling babies with me…and I am independent, for now at least….but I miss what I had, then. Life can be very cruel for some of us…harsh and deadly as well. I still feel that I need vindication, in some way…and want to be heard. Time will tell if this ever happens. He is gone, so I can’t hold him accountable for some of the things he decided for me….and i think he knew, at the end how much he did hurt me.
    My family is not always there…I do see my son, now, but my daughter is gone…at least for now. So this is another source of pain for me..she has no regret, it seems…and despite my many efforts to reach her, she remains aloof…living the “perfect life” with my only grandchild.. …isn’t it ironic? I think of the words of Alanis Morrisette’s song so often, expressing these life events…like the “black fly in your chardonnay’…as my friend said to me, more than once”…”Rachel, life is just “random bullshit”..” perhaps he was right…and nobody really knows anything.
    So, that is my story, so far. I keep on going, for my animals, first and foremost, and I try to help others when I am able..this is my life now.
    Hope this adds some more clarity to the loss, grief and anxiety stories that so many of us are experiencing now.
    Sincerely
    Rachel Bailie
    Oshawa, ONTARIO
    CANADA

    Comment by Rachel Bailie — January 14, 2022 @ 9:36 AM

  5. 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

  6. What is your opinion of TMZ treatment?

    Comment by MARGARET UGOLICK — January 14, 2022 @ 11:51 AM

  7. Glad I got to watch this.

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

  8. 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

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

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

  10. 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

  11. For Rachel Baille….
    I am so sorry for what you went thru. I can only tell you as I read your story I felt deeply that I wanted to tell you about Jesus. Maybe you’ll think I’m crazy, but I have a story too…too long to tell…but have dealt with massive anxiety and depression this last year…….and what I know for sure is that I could not have made it through the year if I didn’t know Jesus. AS hard as it has been and as much as my own brain fought me and tried to tell me my faith was worthless…..I continued fighting for my faith and belief through thick and thin, and it was so worth it…….It is so worth looking for Him. If you don’t know Him, ….go and find Him. He is there for the finding. He loves us more than I can tell you or explain.
    amen
    vicki

    Comment by vicki — February 14, 2022 @ 10:16 PM

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