Depression is a horrible paradox. When you’re feeling down, it may seem like all you can do is watch TV or lie in bed.. Feeling low and unmotivated makes it difficult to do the things needed to help facilitate recovery, such as eating well, exercising and seeking connection with others.
If you are experiencing low moods and feeling more and more tired, you’re not alone. Feeling unmotivated, even for basic self-care, is largely due to an imbalance of the brain chemicals that are responsible for emotion and behavior. Motivation is the result of a complex network of chemical and electrical signals in the brain. Things can and will go awry with both mood and motivation when these chemicals are off track.
Neurotransmitters and Motivation
While most people link the onset of depression to inadequate amounts of serotonin, there are many other chemical factors involved in the onset of depression. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, allow signaling to occur from one nerve or brain cell to the next. Think of them as chemical messengers. There are many different types of neurotransmitters, and they all have cooperative and overlapping functions. Neurotransmitters control actions in our minds and bodies, including but not limited to:
- Motor behavior/movements
- Memory and learning
- Muscle function
Some neurotransmitters make signals happen faster, while others slow down brain synapses. When some fire too much or not enough, they contribute to depression and anxiety.
The Role of Dopamine – Depression Beyond Serotonin
In addition to serotonin imbalances, disrupted dopamine signaling has been shown to affect depression, especially the perception of joy and motivation. Stressful situations can increase dopamine signaling temporarily, which is then followed by a rebound drop in dopamine activity. These decreases in dopamine activity seem to downregulate areas of the brain dedicated to reward responses, resulting in decreased motivation. In a study involving rats, those that exhibited traits of helplessness and lacked motivation to escape a negative foot shock stimulus had a 50% reduction in dopamine firing. If depression is preventing you from living your fullest life, dopamine regulation may represent a valuable target in your treatment plan.
What About Burnout?
Burnout is another self-defeating depressive condition In times of stress, your natural survival response kicks in, causing cortisol (a stress hormone) to rise. Today’s stressors can be many things: jobs, finances, family, relationships, commuting, and so on. Prolonged stress can make impactful changes to our body’s natural cortisol rhythm. When your cortisol rhythm shifts, you may make too much cortisol at certain times of the day and not enough at others. This causes you to feel too exhausted to complete everyday tasks, let alone achieve loftier goals. Alterations in our morning cortisol response—a common signal of burnout—is a factor in the development of major depressive disorder. In a recent study from China assessing job burnout in medical workers, researchers found lower levels of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, in people suffering from burnout. There is a clear link between burnout, depression and lack of motivation, and it is important to consider the impact of chronic stress on mental health.
What You Can Do
Fortunately, there are many ways that you can put this knowledge into action. You’ve done the first part in informing yourself about the science of mental health and neurotransmitters.
Recent research reveals that inflammation, which is an important factor in the development of depression, can reduce dopamine signaling in the brain and can be addressed with lifestyle management. Eating well, getting enough sleep and incorporating movement into your daily routine are excellent ways to decrease inflammation. Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation can target certain areas of the brain associated with dopamine signaling and motivation, and therefore may help alleviate low motivation and depression. . If you find yourself less motivated and your mood has declined significantly, you will want to look into seeking diagnosis, treatment and management for depression.