Depression has grown to epidemic proportions.

Between 2015 and 2020, the incidence of depression reached 9 percent among Americans 12 and older. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine reported in September of 2022 that it increased the fastest for teens and young adults. In this age group, depression increased by 17 percent over the previous year.

And that was before the pandemic.

The most recent numbers from a Gallup Panel, conducted in February 2023, show the number of people having clinical depression in their lifetime and currently experiencing depression are at new highs.
While science has made progress in identifying the causes, what’s going on in your body still isn’t clearly understood. And there’s a lot of misinformation. We know what the symptoms are. However, there’s no blood test that can make a definitive diagnosis. A mental health professional makes a diagnosis based on a collection of symptoms.
So, let’s talk about the most current information about what depression is and is not.

What Does a Depressed Brain Look Like?

While decreased grey matter volume is noted in several parts of depressed brains, a depressed brain basically looks like any other brain. Fundamentally, we all have the same primary brain structure. However, the neuronal connections, determining the activation of and communication between brain circuits, are unique to each of us. The particular circuits excited repeatedly in your brain are the product of your thoughts, interactions with others and the world, and the events that happen to you. They become your brain’s go-to default. Your brain circuits overlap, rely on, and influence each other.

Whether you’re feeling depressed or happy or sad or angry is the result of the way your unique brain circuits and brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, are interacting with, and impacting each other. So, depression is not a chemical imbalance in the brain as much as it is a pattern of how the neurochemicals and circuits in a person’s brain routinely activate to cause depressive symptoms in that person.

In other words, depression is a habitual brain pattern.

man meditating with headphones

The Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression

Unfortunately, healing depression isn’t as simple as increasing one neurochemical. In the 1960s, we were told depression was a deficiency of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. That theory was scientifically debunked. Then, a theory still popular today blamed it on too little serotonin. Despite still being widely believed and antidepressants affecting the serotonin system being the most prescribed, this argument lacks evidence as well.

An “umbrella” review that looked at the existing research compared levels of serotonin and its breakdown products in the blood or brain fluid didn’t show any difference between people with depression and those without depression. Some antidepressants today target the brain chemical noradrenaline. The scientific evidence for the involvement of noradrenaline is even weaker than for serotonin.

Today, we know from research that it’s much more complicated than any of these explanations. According to Harvard Medical School, millions of chemical reactions in the brain work to regulate mood, perceptions, and how you experience life. To be sure, the chemicals in your head are involved in depression, but it’s not as simple as one chemical being too low and another too high.

Causes of Depression

Depression is a complex condition. Our understanding of depression has evolved over time, and research suggests that there are multiple factors that contribute to the development of depression. One more recent theory explains depression as an epigenetic syndrome. Epigenetics is a relatively new scientific discovery proving that who we are is the product of the things that happen in our lives because they change how our genes operate. Your genes switch on or off depending on your life experiences.

No one is born depressed. A person is born with certain genes, and what happens throughout their life determines which genes get expressed and which genes don’t — especially in childhood. So, depression is reinforced and turned “on” by the perfect (or not-so-perfect, in this case) combination of events in your life.
There are multiple life ingredients that contribute to turning “on” genes and developing a depressive brain pattern.

Psychosocial factors

A person’s childhood, life events, trauma, and chronic stress play a significant role in triggering depression. While genes supply the basic blueprint for young brains to develop, life experiences shape an individual’s unique brain circuitry. Young brains are in a critical window of development and are particularly sensitive to stress and trauma.

Stressful or traumatic events in childhood, called adverse childhood experiences, can influence the development of neural circuitry and neurochemical levels and change brain functioning. These effects can last into adulthood and make a person more at risk for depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and many other mental and physical health conditions.

Cognitive factors

Your thoughts affect your brain in very real ways. Negative thinking patterns, distorted beliefs about yourself or the world, and a tendency to ruminate on painful past experiences can contribute to the development and persistence of depressive brain patterns and symptoms. What you pay attention to, think, feel, and want, and how you react and behave repeatedly actually shape your brain’s physical form and function. This ability of your brain to change is called neuroplasticity.

In the article, What Stress Does to Your Brain, Jo Marchant, Ph.D. in genetics and medical microbiology and author, explains:
“Your brain reflects the way that you think throughout your life. You kind of shape it by your thoughts and your behaviors. If you play violin for eight hours a day, then the parts of the brain responsible for helping you to play the violin will get larger. If you’re thinking stressful thoughts for the whole day then those parts of the brain are going to get larger and other parts of the brain will deteriorate. ”

Social factors

Humans are social beings who need each other and are meant to be around other people. Numerous studies have shown that close relationships and a strong support network protect against depression and that a lack of social support, isolation, and loneliness are associated with an increased risk of depression. A strong social network and positive social interactions can have a protective effect against depression.

In research, low self-rated social support was associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. In another study involving depressed college students, feeling unappreciated, unloved, and uninvolved with family and friends was one of the most powerful predictors of persistent suicidal thoughts.

Other Factors

Personality traits, genetic factors, and other underlying medical conditions can interact with these issues to contribute to developing depression. There is no single recipe and the path to developing a depressed brain is unique to each person. Different factors can combine to trigger depression in one person, and the same scenario may leave another person just fine.
Genetics does play a part. A person with a family history of depression may be at greater risk, but it’s not as straightforward as say cystic fibrosis. If your parent was depressed, it doesn’t mean you are destined to be also. And some of the family influence may be learned.

The Brainwaves of Depression

No one knows the precise combination of factors that will lead to depression in their brain. However, research does know that depressed brains tend to exhibit abnormal and identifiable brainwave patterns. For example, an EEG might show that a depressed brain has an excess of beta activity and that brainwaves on the left and right frontal lobes are not symmetrical.

It’s important to note that brainwave patterns in a depressed brain can vary significantly among individuals. Reading and interpreting brainwaves can get complicated. For this reason, you want a knowledgeable professional to interpret your EEG results. While brainwave irregularities are not the sole cause of depression, they reflect the underlying neural activity related to emotional processing, cognitive functioning, and regulation of mood and behaviors contributing to the condition.

And changing your brainwaves can be a big part of the cure for depression.

How to Alter Your Brainwaves to Ease Depression

Science has confirmed that altering a person’s brainwaves can ease depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Research tells us that there are many ways to do this.

DIY Methods

Controlling the brainwaves in your head is possible and could help ease depressive symptoms. You can guide your own mind and tell it to “change the channel” to promote healthier and better-feeling brain activity. Some ways to do it yourself are:

Meditation and Mindfulness

Research confirms that regular meditation increases alpha waves, which are relaxing brain waves, and reduces beta waves, which are indicative of active thought and learning. That’s why meditation and mindfulness are commonly recommended for reducing stress. Deep breathing and closed-eye visualization, mindfulness practices commonly included in meditation, can also boost alpha waves.


Moving your body has a profound positive impact on your brain and brainwave activity. Exercise can lead to beneficial changes in brain function, neurochemicals, and mental states. Exercise has been shown to increase alpha wave activity, and induce a state of calm and focus. High-intensity aerobic workouts can especially produce this effect. Exercising also releases endorphins that give you that “high” feeling. After, your brain produces more alpha waves as you rest.


Neurofeedback is a way of teaching your brain to alter its brain waves directly. Research shows that neurofeedback can successfully train your brain to decrease depression and anxiety. For example, according to studies, alpha wave activity tends to be higher in the left prefrontal cortex of depressed people. Science links this pattern to negative emotions. By training individuals to increase alpha wave activity in the right prefrontal cortex, which is linked to positive emotions, neurofeedback can help improve mood and alleviate symptoms of depression.

One study of people with treatment-resistant depression (TRD) with major depressive disorder concluded:
“Despite the small sample size, these results suggest that neurofeedback treatment may be effective as an augmentation treatment, not only for depressive symptoms but also for functional recovery, in patients with TRD.”

What is neurofeedback?

Neurofeedback is a specialized form of biofeedback therapy, where people learn to influence their body’s autonomic nervous system at a subconscious level to permanently alter their own brainwaves. Neurofeedback has been around since the 1950s and is a reputable, scientifically proven modality practiced by trained practitioners.
In a neurofeedback session, a trained practitioner places EEG sensors on the scalp and ears to measure brain activity. A computer monitors brainwaves and provides real-time feedback to the trainee in the form of a positive reward, like music or video games. With consistent repetition, the brain learns to self-regulate and makes permanent physiological changes to function more optimally. The altered operation continues after the training session.


The more you know about how your body works, the better you can take care of yourself. And the more you know what is happening in your brain with depression, the better able you are to free yourself from the condition. Depression happens in your brain and can end there.

Neurofeedback can teach your brain to increase its production of calming brain waves permanently and relatively quickly compared to other available methods to treat depression. Neurofeedback successfully treats many other conditions, including anxiety, autism, ADD and ADHD, brain injuries, OCD, stroke recovery, PTSD, addictions, seizure disorders, migraines, chronic pain, dementia, and more. By fine-tuning the brain’s performance, neurofeedback can also improve focus and concentration. For example, neurofeedback training could improve a person’s performance at school, sports, or work.

A better, happier you is possible.

At Grey Matters of Carmel, we are passionate about helping people live their best lives. Give us a call at (317) 215-7208 or send a message today to talk about how we can help you.