Your brain changes in unexpected ways when you struggle with anxiety and depression at the same time.
Experts have studied the relationship between the brain and mental illness to find solutions for those who are affected. Globally, depression is the most common and disabling psychiatric disorder – affecting around 4.4% of the population – while anxiety comes in second place, the World Health Organization reports.
Depression paired with anxiety has been linked to negative health outcomes, more dangerous symptoms, and an increase in suicidal thoughts.
Other studies have shown that depression shrinks the hippocampus, which is connected to memory and learning. Many people have issues with both anxiety and depression and yet most of the previous studies do not take into account those suffering from both.
A recent study by the Australian National University, which looked into the co-morbidity of depression and anxiety, revealed that over time the pairing has a strong effect on the areas of the brain associated with emotional processing and memory.
The research, published in The Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, observed patients with anxiety and depression to understand the effects of both disorders on the brain.
The scientists looked at 10,000 people in 112 studies and confirmed the findings of past research: that people suffering only from depression also have lower brain volumes, especially in the hippocampus. The authors of the study are of the mind that this becomes even truer later in life because a smaller hippocampus is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and may expedite the development of dementia. The second discovery showed that when depression and anxiety strike together, no shrinkage occurred in the hippocampus, and the amygdala – the area of the brain responsible for emotions – increased in size.
But what does this disturbing combination lead to?
The study team concluded that the combo of depression and anxiety indicates that anxiety lowers the effects of depressions on brain volume size by 3%. They found that the hyperactivity of anxiety causes the brain to establish more connections and hence grows in size. This can turn into a big issue, according to the experts, because the anxiety paired with depression and the enlargement can hide the shrinking effects of depression.
The discovery that the brain increases in size if a person is both depressed and anxious also suggests that the effect of depression on brain shrinkage has been largely underestimated because of the opposite masking effect in the amygdala.
The researchers stressed the need for future investigations that look into anxiety co-morbidity as a way to better understand the independent role of each disorder in the structure of the brain.
These discoveries cast even more light on the need for effective treatments to improve long-term mental health and combat additive effects on cognitive disorders in the later parts of life.
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Source: Psychology Today