I have many people come in for therapy who ask about medicine for their “chemical imbalance.” I know that may doctors tell their patients this when they prescribe anti-depressant medications. But when you ask your doctor what chemicals are unbalanced, and what tests he did to measure this, he won’t be able to answer you. Unlike other common medical problems like blood sugar, cholesterol or blood pressure, no one really knows if there is a chemical imbalance, and if so, what chemicals aren’t right.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not against anti-depressant medications, and there are times when they are lifesaving. These medications do work to take the edge off depression, but they often have side effects of leveling people’s moods. You may not feel so low, but you also may not feel as happy. You could go through life with a flattened, numb, not caring feeling. Most of them also numb sexual interest and pleasure. The problem comes when they are used to manage moods without also engaging in therapy to learn how to manage your moods without the necessity for medications.

Unlike other medical problems, depression can come when there are stresses in your life, and naturally resolve when your problems resolve. Imagine if you are feeling down or depressed because you couldn’t pay your bills and all of a sudden you find out you won ten million dollars in a lottery. Heart disease, cancer or any other measurable disease wouldn’t suddenly heal, but your depression might be instantly gone. Another example is falling in love. I have yet to meet a single person who reports being depressed or needing anti-depressant medication while falling in love.

Is depression a chemical imbalance? No one really knows. There are times when depression (and alcoholism) run in families. Is it biological, learned, or both? In the case of bipolar (manic-depressive disease) there is clearly a biological cause, but for most people, depression is a reflection of difficulty managing life problems. It’s typically short-term if treated with mental health therapy. I have seen many people begin feeling better after only one session of cognitive/behavioral therapy, and have their depression fully resolved in a matter of weeks.

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