If you are struggling with depression, it can feel as if you’re at the mercy of depression’s ups and downs. But in fact there are many small, simple things you can do to help turn depression around and keep it in check.
“Depression isn’t static,” says Louis Weigele, LCSW, vice president of the Ohio Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “It’s either going downhill or uphill. When you take small steps to start pulling yourself uphill, you’ll eventually get there.”
Weigele and other mental health experts recommend the following lifestyle changes — in addition to working with a mental health professional familiar with depression — to help manage the condition.
Take excellent care of yourself: Symptoms of depression often emerge during times of stress, when you’re not eating well, sleeping enough, or getting regular exercise, says Margaret Hering, LCSW, a therapist who practices in the San Francisco area. Stressful events can cause a snowball effect, making it increasingly hard to engage in such healthy activities as cooking a balanced meal or getting a full night’s sleep. But as with any condition, practicing these healthy habits is exactly what your body needs to heal and get back on track. Incorporate regular physical activity into your day: Exercise can ease depression by releasing feel-good endorphins and readjusting other brain chemicals. Mind-body exercises such as yoga may be particularly helpful for lowering stress.
Stick with your treatment plan: Another common cause of depression is not sticking with your depression treatment plan — both when you feel bad and when you feel good. If your treatment is working, don’t stop it because you feel better. Consistency is the key to getting depression under control and preventing its return. And remember to check in with your doctor or therapist on a regular basis. Says Hering, “Don’t try to handle depression on your own.”
Do the things you enjoy: According to the National Institutes of Health, loss of interest in things you once enjoyed is a symptom of depression. So while you may not feel like pursuing your favorite hobby or adding a social activity to your week, doing so can be a powerful way to counter depression. “Start small, but push yourself to engage in meaningful activities,” Weigele advises. “Fake it until you make it.”
Take a break from chemicals: Sugar, alcohol, fat, caffeine, and illicit drugs may all provide tempting ways to seek comfort from the pain of depression, but these substances will only leave you feeling worse — not better — in the end. “Covering one problem with another,” Weigele says, “is a very unsuccessful way to treat this condition.”
Know your depression: Depression is not the same for everyone. Learn as much as you can about the various types of depression, and learn more about your own kind of depression. For example, while people with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, can benefit from full-spectrum light exposure, those with other types of depression may derive little or no effect from such exposure. Work with your medical professional to determine what treatment works best for you, and keep at it.
Connect in person with others: A 2010 study conducted by researchers at Leeds University in the United Kingdom found that those who spent a lot of time surfing the Internet, chatting online, and sending e-mail and text messages experienced more anxiety and depression than those who didn’t. So while technology can help us connect in a busy world, relying on it too heavily can increase isolation, which in turn can spur depression. Instead, pick up the phone or visit a friend in person when possible.
Be a savvy media consumer: A University of Pittsburgh study that followed teens over a seven-year period found that their odds of depression increased by 8 percent for each additional hour per day that they watched television. Weigele says that those with depression should be especially choosy about the movies, magazines, and television programs they select. “Know what makes you feel better,” he says, “and what makes you feel worse.” If romantic comedies only make you feel lonelier, or if intense dramas make you feel more hopeless about the state of the world, steer clear of them.
Eat as though you lived by the Mediterranean: A 2009 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that those who ate a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, and fish, were 30 percent less likely to experience depression than those who ate a diet heavy in meats and dairy fats. While more research is needed, experts speculate that there may be a connection between a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and better moods. You can find omega-3s in fish such as salmon and tuna, as well as in walnuts and flaxseeds.
Monitor your thoughts: Pay attention to your self-talk, that incessant and often critical internal dialogue that judges feelings, situations, actions, and emotions. Your inner voice may be fueling depression. Says Hering, “It’s a constant process to look at your thoughts and replace negative ones with self-talk that is more caring and nurturing.”
Follow the sun: Sun exposure increases your body’s intake of vitamin D, which has the potential to improve depression. Just be sure to spend only a moderate amount of time in the sun, and wear sunscreen daily.
Go easy on yourself: Implementing lifestyle changes when you’re depressed takes considerable effort, so be kind to yourself. The key is to remember that your small efforts will add up. “Don’t overwhelm yourself with large goals,” Weigele says. “It’s really about taking small steps.” Getting exercise, for example, can mean walking to the curb and back one day, then increasing that effort to taking a walk around the block, and then adding more effort over time. Let go of “all or nothing” thinking and just do what you can each and every day. Soon enough, you’ll be headed uphill again.
By Michele Bloomquist
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