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Anxiety and depression have been associated with each other for years, with some studies finding as much as 85 percent of those with major depression to also be diagnosed with co-occurring generalized anxiety disorder. However, new research has found that the pain of social rejection lasts longer for people with untreated depression, providing insight on the treatment of not only the two commonly associated disorders, but other anxiety related issues such as social phobias as well.
The study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, found that the brain cells of depressed people release considerably fewer levels of opioids, natural pain and stress-reducing chemicals. The research team consists of investigators from the University of Michigan Medical School, Stony Brook University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. The team utilized brain scanning technology and a simulated online dating scenario. Focusing on (the brain receptor system implicated for years in its response to physical pain) the authors found that a depressed person’s ability to regulate emotions during social interactions is compromised, likely due to the changes in the opioid system.
The researchers recruited 17 individuals who met the criteria for major depressive disorder but were not on any medication for the condition and a control group of 18 non-depressed people. The participants viewed hundreds of photos and profiles in a simulated online dating scenario, with each person selecting profiles of the people they were most interested in romantically. Using a brain scan technique, the participants were informed that the individuals they found attractive and interesting were not interested in them.
“Every day we experience positive and negative social interactions. This may be one reason for depression’s tendency to linger or return, especially in a negative social environment. This builds on our growing understanding that the brain’s opioid system may help an individual feel better after negative social interactions and sustain good feelings after positive social interactions,” said Jon-Kar Zubieta of the University of Michigan’s Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute.
PET scans taken during these moments of rejection showed both the amount and location of opioid release. The depressed individuals showed reduced opioid release in brain regions regulating stress, mood and motivation. Conversely, when they were informed that the people they chose liked them back, both the depressed and non-depressed test groups reported feeling happy and accepted which is notable because depression typically excludes responses to positive or enjoyable events.
However, this atypical positive feeling in the depressed test subjects disappeared quickly after the period of social acceptance had ended. Only the non-depressed control group felt motivated to be social, a feeling accompanied by the release of opioids in a brain area involved in the reward system.
The original social drug
Part of the reason that opioid addiction is among the most severe dependencies is due to the prevalence of natural opioid receptors in the brain and gastrointestinal tracts, normally recognized as the feeling of “butterflies in one’s stomach”. With this in mind, depressed people are at a considerably higher risk of developing social anxiety and possibly other mental issues as well.
For their next study, the authors will seek to determine who is most affected by social stressors, investigating genes, personality and the environment in regard to the brain’s ability to release opioids during experiences of rejection/acceptance. However, they acknowledge everyone responds differently to their social environment, leaving a demand for optimized treatment.
To learn more about where you can get help for issues such as depression or anxiety, you can call the Depression Treatment Centers of California at 855-678-0400 for help.