Home > Training

Why injury often leads to depression

It may seem counter-intuitive, but depression following injury may actually be adaptive

A recent study by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta has found that that the lack of motivation and depression we experience when injured is due to the brain’s reduced dopamine response, which is designed to make sure we don’t get any pleasure from physical or mental tasks that are not directly related to recovery. The theory is that the depression we feel is directly linked to the inflammation brought on by injury, and, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s actually adaptive for us to feel depressed and unmotivated during this time.

The study, entitled “Can’t or Won’t? Immunometabolic Constraints on Dopaminergic Drive,” was published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

RELATED: Bestselling author rocks her age group in trail half-marathon

Jane McGonigal, 41, is a gaming expert, New York Times bestselling author and dedicated trail runner. Her books Reality is Broken and Superbetter take a very untraditional approach toward concussion and the depression that often follows. McGonigal commented on the study in a tweet:

“This is the best scientific explanation yet for why injury and inflammation of all kinds, including concussion, can trigger feelings of depression or lack of motivation,” she said. (The study is concerned with injuries of all kinds, not limited to concussion.)

Dr. Liji Thomas interpreted the study in News Medical: “This is essentially a recalibration of the specialized reward neurons in the motivation center of the brain, so that ordinary tasks no longer feel like they’re worth doing.”

Of course, being injured also raises the question in runners, “why do I keep getting injured?” That in itself could lead to depression, and it’s definitely worth exploring–it could be that you’re overtraining, or a combination of overtraining and under-fuelling, which can lead to bone injuries. And though inactivity can take a mental toll, it may help to remember that the apathy you feel has a positive purpose–to force you to rest and heal so you can resume your regular activities, including training, as soon as possible.

RELATED: UVic runner publishes depression story in Globe and Mail