So we’ve gone over how depression and anxiety can be rooted biologically, and perhaps over the past week, you’ve done some searching, questioning, maybe experimenting to see if any of the roots I discussed last week ring true with you.
But now we’ve come to that conclusion, what to do about it? Lots! Actually! While I’ll never claim a cure, but there are many things one can do to aid in one’s day to day life. In the interest of giving you as much info as possible, I am also including medical treatments as well as lifestyle. But this post got HUGE, so that’ll be in Part This One.
One thing I’d like to get across before we dive in, is that consistency is key to recovery. Your bodily systems are not conscious beings. They are not entities that can differentiate between you forgetting to eat and a legitimate starvation period. If you have an irregular sleep cycle, your circadian rhythm will attempt to adjust to each change as though you need a system reset. You can’t negotiate or dictate to your systems, you must work with their natural proclivity to the highest possible good.
Kay. Now, onward.
And again, not a doctor, please check with your care provider before making changes to your diet or starting a supplementary regimen.
As with everything, your diet is vital to your mental health- your diet is where all the building blocks of your proteins, enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and such all come from. Without certain elements in your diet, the body cannot properly synthesize these chemicals necessary for efficient functioning. I’m not going to tell you what kind of diet is best for you- I’m not a nutritionist. But there are some generally agreed upon guidelines for overall health and wellness.
Many of us struggle with the appropriate level of eating on a daily basis, either too much or too little. Everyday Health has a quick article on the issue of appetite and depression, that also covers some things that may help. Psychology Today also has an excellent article for both ways, over and under eating. And for extra fun, All About Depression, Consumer Health Digest, Help Guide.org, and MindBodyGreen all have advice for you too! I personally struggle with a loss of appetite. Some days I don’t even remember food exists, or I can’t bear to eat. On those days, I go for a cup of Greek Yogurt (I like Oikos, cuz their yogurt is higher in protein.) or a shake, either one I made myself, or a Bolthouse Farms protein shake. (Not affiliated, I just really like them.) Making your own shake is possibly the least energy consuming way to get your nutrients in, and there are thousands of meal shake recipes out there. (If you’re struggling with low weight, avoid the weight loss ones. And if you’re trying to lose weight, please be careful to balance your nutrition!) I can’t recommend that shakes become your only source of nutrition, especially commercial ones, but if it’s the only way you can get food in at the moment, go for it! Wal*Mart even sells shake blenders for like, $15.
Now that we’ve looked a bit at helping our appetite, let’s look at what the people with fancy pants say about what to eat; On essential nutrients: HealthLine, HealthyEating, on producing neurotransmitters: SpoonUniversity, LiveStrong, Be Brain Fit, on balancing hormones: MindBodyGreen, and HealthLine again.
If you really feel like a strict diet plan will help you, team up with your doctor or a lifestyle coach, or learn about diets like the Mediterranian, DASH, MIND, and ModiMed. At the end of 2017, US News put out a list of diets that were reviewed by a panel of experts to determine the best diets put in the limelight.
Just keep in mind that these diet changes shouldn’t just be followed until you lose/gain weight or feel better and then go back to eating whatever- it’s most effective if you follow this diet for your whole life. Poor dietary habits contributed in the first place, don’t slip back and let them win!
I’d like to distinguish the practice of Meditation from simple Mindfulness. Meditation is a very old practice found around the world, and has a large variety of practices and focuses. Mindfulness is simply a branch of Meditation, closely associated with Zen practices.
We’ve all heard that Meditation and Mindfulness are some sort of “magical cure” for your negative mental experiences, but why, exactly? Neuroscientists have found ways that Meditation calms your mind and body, even down to changing how your genes function.
For one, Meditation slows aging in your brain and increases the volume in certain areas of the brain, ones related to learning and memory making in particular (the hippocampus). It also decreases volume in centers like the amygdala, related to the stress response. Meditation also reduces activity in the areas of the brain known as the “me centers”. This is the part of the brain that is beginning to be associated with human consciousness, our “ego” and the never-ending stream of thoughts that we have. (Fun fact: Psychedelic drugs have a similar effect but on a larger scale. We’ll cover that in Part This One!) The Washinton Post held an interview with Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist involved with studies into meditation, and discusses the main areas affected by meditation.
Meditation also soothes the body, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing muscle tension. The regulation of the breath seems to tell your body that there is no danger, no problems.
Meditation is not always a seated, still practice. Yoga is a moving meditation, and the practice of Zen has many meditations, like the Japanese tea ceremony, or simple walking meditations. Almost any activity can become meditative if done in a way that promotes the mindset. Western science is increasingly fascinated with meditation, and have discovered an abundance of information surrounding what it does, how it does it, and why it does. Here are just a few short articles on it: From Forbes, Mindful.org, Web MD, Gaiam, University of Wisconsin, and Psychology Today.
Getting into meditation can feel confusing and maybe a bit annoying. With the boom in mindfulness, there are hundreds of options out there for learning meditation. I’d recommend starting with this lecture from Alan Watts on how to meditate, as well as the Calm program. I’ve been using Calm for years (they have an app for Android and iPhone) and love it. They have a full and free version, and while both are great, I absolutely recommend the full version for the sake of the magnitude of what it offers. (Not affiliated! I just love Calm’s programs.) I feel they really understand and believe in what they are doing. Their 7 and 21-day programs give excellent instruction into beginning meditation, and their other guided programs offer even more insight into varied circumstances.
I’ve found that before I go into a situation that I know will be stressful, I take two minutes to just breathe. Just simple inhale for 4-6 seconds, hold for 3, exhale for 4-8 seconds. Just that two minutes helps immeasurably. If I’m suddenly faced with something unexpected, I’m learning to respond with a few of these measured breaths. It’s a lifesaver.
Some have reported increased irritability or anxiousness after beginning a meditation regimen, in addition to other negative effects. From my own experience, this may be because in meditation things you have avoided or downright repressed have had an opportunity to arise and are calling for attention. My advice is to pay attention. Don’t freak out. What do you need to resolve? How can you resolve it? Don’t push it down again or quit meditating. You may need to change the way or type of meditation you do, or seek outside help. You’ll come out stronger for it.
Those of you already exercising for your mental or physical health are possibly making excited noises, and those of you not, are probably groaning and rolling your eyes because this again.
And I don’t blame you. Exercise is so hard to get into, especially when your depression has weighed you down like the whole world is on your chest, or your anxiety has you paralyzed at the mere thought of going out in public, or hurting your self, or doing the wrong thing… It goes on. Yet exercise is important. So very important, and it’s not as difficult or complicated as it seems. The most important element is seems is that you get your heart rate elevated to a degree, and your breath going. (Aerobic exercise… Cardio.) The simplest way to do it is by taking a 30-minute walk. Not so bad, right? Everyone has 30 minutes somewhere in their day. (Bonus round if you take time out of your Netflix time to do it!) If walking is not up your alley at the moment, there are other ways to get moving, taking a 15-minute break to stretch, getting in the water, etc. Breakout the Kinect or Wii Sports even! Many facilities now offer options for exercise for those who are confined to chairs or have other impairments to their movements. (You can do them at home too!)
Daily is great, but some studies show even just taking an hour once or twice a week can be enough for some people (for mental benefits), so there’s even less pressure. You don’t have to jump right into being a fitness guru to get the benefits of exercise.
For the sake of consistency, here’s a load of info on how exercise helps with Anxiety and Depression: From Harvard, Psychology Today, Web MD, A list of exercises from Everyday Health that will help, From the ADAA, Calm Clinic, Another list from Health, And Mayo Clinic. All are short articles with their own nugget of information that’s worth reading, won’t take long, and will hopefully give you some great ideas! I myself do my best to make it into my preferred yoga studio twice a week. (I really recommend going to a center that offers yoga if you choose to do so. There is so much of the practice that you miss out on doing it alone at home- and a teacher will help you grow in ways you never thought you needed to or could! A great teacher will be your greatest ally. Also, yoga puts you into movements you’d never do otherwise, so if you do it wrong, you can hurt yourself, in spite of it’s relaxing nature.)
As a sub note, I know many out there with chronic conditions may find moving incredibly difficult, so I’d like to add Bodywork to this section.
While not exercise, getting a Massage, whether it’s on a table or a mat, will provide you will a way to stimulate blood and lymphatic flow, loosen muscle tension, and can even decrease feelings of isolation and loneliness in some. Recent research has found that receiving a massage can lower cortisol levels by a significant amount while raising levels of serotonin and dopamine. Massage also triggers your Parasympathetic nervous system, signaling to the body to rest and repair itself. Different modalities of massage will also activate your Endocannabinoid system,(Link also holds a number of other ways to stimulate the system.) which plays a large role in your bodies healing.
At a later date I’d love to do posts on Yoga and Massage, the different types, where to go and how to do, address concerns and all that jazz, so don’t fret that this is all you’ll be hearing from me on it! After all, it’s my day job and I love it!
Sleeping is so hard, and waking up is even harder- for me at least. But regulating your Circadian Rhythm is possibly one of the most important things you can do to help your disorder. So I’ve found a variety of aids to help me sleep. I have yet to find one that helps me fall asleep invariably, I do have to juggle them, but at least one every night helps me to sleep. Thomas Frank has an awesome video on how to stop being tired all the time and boost your energy. (Thomas Frank just has awesome videos.)
Most of what I’ve found to help sleep are behavioral, but there are also many relevant to our biological systems as well!
- I prefer Kava and Valerian teas for sleep, as both are believed to increase levels of GABA in the brain. Kava also acts as a muscle relaxer. Healthline has a good overview of dosage, and how to take valerian.
- Chamomile tea has anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties and does an upset stomach wonders. It also has a mild and comforting flavor that many of us enjoy. An irritable bowel can keep one tossing all night, so perhaps a cup of chamomile is what you need.
- Hops are also believed to have sedative effects as well as increasing GABA counts. No, consuming them in beer does not count. (Alcohol inhibits good sleep, so cutting back on it will also help increase the quality of your sleep.)
More than the tea itself, the nightly ritual of making and drinking a warm liquid can be calming enough to get you in the right state for sleeping.
Reduce Blue Light
A little blue light can go a long way. Blue light is a natural part of our environment, making up a decent percent of the sun’s wavelength, and it also contributes to our circadian rhythm, by suppressing the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps one to sleep. Blue light is also produced by our fancy electronics and most home light sources. While helpful throughout the day- especially in the morning hours, it can be detrimental at night when we should be winding down. That’s why it’s helpful to either stop the use of electronics or if you must persist, install a blue light filter that’s set to kick in as the sun sets. (My ability to fall asleep easier has waaaaay improved since I started using a blue light filter.)
Blue light isn’t all bad– it can also be an effective treatment for SAD and other mood disorders, as well as help you to reset your circadian rhythm and just might help your skin! Blue light in the morning hours contributes to the regulation of the Circadian Rhythm, so get some nice sunshine in through a window or time outside, or find yourself a light therapy lamp!
There is evidence that sleep medications don’t work, can cause undesirable side effects, and make your insomnia worse, so it’s best to build proper sleeping habits than to reach for medications.
One Harvard study proposes you can reset your circadian rhythm through one “starvation cycle”. Crazy stuff indeed. In certain clinics, doctors are studying a type of therapy that involves manipulating the Sleep/wake cycle known as “Wake Therapy”, or “Sleep Deprivation Therapy.” It seems counter-intuitive, yet it seems to be working, though the effects are not long-lasting. Researchers believe it to be a quick relief for those with major symptoms while other therapies take the time they need to get working. Don’t try this at home or alone.
Okay, huge post, I know, but I want to throw one more at you- and you’re already doing it!
Learning new things pushes your brain to form new neural connections and keeps away cognitive decline. Most research has shown that learning new skills or a second language are some of the most helpful things you can learn- especially in regards to the hippocampus- which is what those of us with depression want. There is evidence that this growth doesn’t stick, so it’s not a one-time cure-all for sure.
Our brains like novelty, we get a great rush of dopamine when we experience something new, so go out and find something you’ve never learned before, and keep uncovering things about it. Let your mind wander. If you have a question, whip out google and look it up! Run to your local library and check out books on the subject, find free online classes on the subject from websites like Coursera and edX, or youtube channels like MentalFloss, VSauce, CrashCourse, SciShow, BigThink, etc. Youtube is generally just a great resource for learning whether it’s about learning photoshop or digital art skills, working on cars, baking, and cooking, or finding university lectures posted for free!
If you want to learn a new language and not shovel out hundreds on Rosetta Stone or similar programs, DuoLingo is my favorite way to go. It’s free and fun to use, and you can get lessons on both your computer and the app, and you get a high-quality education from it. The community for it is wonderfully posititve and encouraging as well.
Similar to learning- video games of a certain kind have been shown to affect the hippocampus, in both positive and negative ways, depending on the type of game. FPS and action games tend to decrease the size- not happy, and platformers and puzzle type games increase, or at least change the shape of the hippocampus. Very happy. (This is not an excuse to hide in your basement and play video games for 12 hours at a time. That’s still bad.)
There’s so much more than what I’ve laid out today that pertains to biological care, but these are a great start. Think of them as your basic building blocks to get you on the right track. You can incorporate these into your daily regimen of self-care, or fall back on them as a form of healthy coping- as long as they’re done mindfully!
If you have any daily routines, be sure to share them in the comments for others to get ideas!
Domnu stiffened. “Games are serious, my pet. As serious as life itself, for that too is just a game.”
T. A. Barron, The Lost Years of Merlin, Book One