Millions of Americans today are searching for relief from depression and anxiety. There are many ways to reduce or eliminate symptoms, especially by functional medicine protocols that reduce chronic inflammation. In addition to addressing the underlying physical causes, it is equally important to tend to the health of the psyche. One powerful but often overlooked way to do just that is to invest time volunteering.
Volunteerism has been shown to relieve depression and anxiety, lower blood pressure, release the social bonding hormone oxytocin, improve contentment, and trigger the same dopamine reward centers in the brain that are stimulated by food, drugs, and sex.
Although greed and selfishness are characteristic human traits, researchers have found that altruism and cooperation are also inherent qualities that set us apart from much of the animal kingdom. The human brain is wired to help others.
Humans have survived over millennia due to the ability to work together in child rearing, hunting, gathering, creating domiciles, and caring for sick and older members of the community. Volunteering exercises areas of the brain that are often neglected in our isolated and overly busy modern culture.
It’s no surprise that so many people are depressed and anxious given our evolutionary history in which our ancestors lived in close-knit communities. Today, most Americans live in single-family dwellings with little connection to their neighbors or community. Social isolation and loneliness actually pose serious health risks similar to obesity and smoking.
How volunteering helps relieve depression and anxiety
Feelings of separation and isolation can contribute to depression and anxiety. Those who struggle with these disorders often see themselves as useless and a burden to others. Volunteering is one way that people can experience more connection, optimism, and purpose.
Volunteering triggers the release of oxytocin, the “love and bonding” brain chemical. This is the same chemical released during sex or from cuddling a baby or a pet.
Oxytocin makes you feel better emotionally by reducing stress and it lowers inflammation – two significant factors that lead to depression.
Another powerful neurotransmitter impacting mood and released while volunteering is dopamine. This is our “pleasure and reward” neurotransmitter connected to feelings of accomplishment, pleasure, or reward. We need sufficient dopamine to get things accomplished as well as to feel self-worth and purpose in life. People with depression are often lacking in these two areas.
Addictions are dopamine surges run amuck as people become hooked on the dopamine rush that comes with drugs, gambling, and other pleasurable indulgences. Volunteering triggers a healthy dopamine release with mood and health benefits that extend into other areas of life.
Research has shown that volunteering takes you outside of yourself. Although ignoring your woes doesn’t make them go away, extending compassion for other people’s struggles can help put your own into a healthier perspective. This is true as long as caretaking is not your source of income. Full-time caretaking has been linked with increased stress and burnout.
The paradox of “being too busy” to volunteer
Most people don’t consider volunteering due to their already over-scheduled lives. However, people often note that volunteering actually eases chronic overwhelm, lowers stress, and boosts mood when they make time for it in their busy lives. Regular volunteering can quiet the over-anxious mind, relax the muscles, and calm your breathing.
Functional medicine and depression
While it’s certainly beneficial to address the psychological factors associated with depression and anxiety, it is critical to investigate the physiological factors as well.
These factors can include chronic inflammation, lack of gut bacteria, too much bad gut bacteria, leaky gut, and compromised brain health, such as from a past brain injury or brain inflammation.
These dysfunctions can be caused by food intolerances, blood sugar imbalances, poor nutrition, a sedentary lifestyle, undiagnosed autoimmunity, hidden infections, or other underlying disorders that antidepressants will not address.
Contact my office to learn more about how functional medicine can help you relieve depression and anxiety.
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