Depression and anxiety have become more common than ever, with millions of Americans search for ways to feel and function better. While many routes can help, particularly functional medicine protocols that reduce chronic inflammation, you still must tend to the health of your spirit. A proven remedy in this area is to spend time volunteering.
Studies show volunteering relieves depression and anxiety, lowers blood pressure, releases the social bonding hormone oxytocin, improves contentment, and activates the same dopamine reward centers in the brain as food, drugs, and sex.
Researchers suggest volunteering is beneficial for us because, despite ample examples of greed and selfishness, the human brain is actually wired to be helpful and cooperative. These qualities set us apart from much of the animal kingdom.
Our inherent neurological wiring explains why so many people are depressed and anxious in a world created around social isolation and loneliness, which are as health risks similar to obesity and smoking.
Depression and anxiety can focus a person inward, even if it’s an extremely negative way. Depression causes a sense of disconnection and isolation and feeling like a burden to others.
On the other hand, people who volunteer report feeling more connected to others, more optimistic, and having a sense of purpose. It is believed this is due in part to the oxytocin that volunteering releases in the brain. Oxytocin is a “love and bonding” hormone that is also triggered during orgasm, cuddling, breastfeeding, and through meaningful connection with others.
Oxytocin reduces stress and lowers inflammation — two known factors that cause depression.
Although dopamine is associated with addiction, we still need sufficient dopamine to help us get things done and feel self-worth and purpose in life. The dopamine released by volunteering reaches into other areas of their life, improving overall well being.
Researchers also suggest volunteering is beneficial for depression because it expands your perspective beyond yourself. Although we shouldn’t ignore our feelings or problems in life, gaining compassionate perspective for other people’s struggles who need our help can put our own issues into a broader context.
It’s important to note that while volunteering has many benefits, studies show that people who work in helping or caretaking fields are more prone to increased stress and burnout.
Many people feel will complain they are too busy and stressed out to volunteer. However, volunteers report that when you do it anyways — the reduced stress and improved well being actually expand your life to feel more relaxed and open.
This is because volunteering can calm anxiety and introduce more relaxed breathing and muscles.
While volunteering can help with depression and anxiety, you still must tend to the underlying physiological reasons for your depression and anxiety.
For instance, depression is linked to chronic inflammation, lack of gut bacteria diversity, too much bad gut bacteria, leaky gut, and poor brain health, such as from a past brain injury or brain inflammation.
These disorders can arise from food intolerances, blood sugar imbalances, poor nutrition, a sedentary lifestyle, undiagnosed autoimmunity, hidden infections, or other underlying disorders that antidepressants will not address.
Ask my office for more ideas on how functional medicine can help you relieve depression and anxiety.