Depression directly effects 25% of North Americans each year. That might not seem like a very large number, but when you consider that nearly ¾ of mental health problems begin in childhood or adolescence, it becomes a statistic worth crying over.
When I was young, I didn’t associate my frequent bad moods with a disease – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I thought – and my parents thought – that I was just a brat, and rightfully so. I was quite miserable and difficult to be around. This “personality trait” started to resonate with me as I continued through my high school years, at which point I began to consider myself a chronically unhappy person. By the time I recognized that I had depression, it had all but consumed me alive, taking my spirit with it.
Throughout my university years, my sadness gradually turned to anger. My relationship of five years suffered and eventually ended because I grew unable to keep my emotions in check. I reluctantly made my family aware of my mental health issues when they began to take my anger personally, and their preceding worry only served to inflame my deep seeded frustration.
Depression is all-consuming. Without a way to keep it calm, it can become life threatening – in more ways than one. My depression has taken me from a moody teenager to an absent girlfriend to a morose co-worker – and I take full responsibility for those low points in my life. Through rage and tears and numbness, I’ve struggled. I’ve resisted and admitted defeat and grown stronger. I’ve been beaten and battered and heart broken, and I’ve overcome. So while I don’t have a degree in psychology or a certificate in counselling, I do have a profound knowledge founded in experience, and I promise you it’s credible.
As you probably already know, no amount of experience in the world can offer a cure for this pervasive disease. No matter what I offer you here today, you will not walk away with the key to happiness. But as any war that lasts more than a decade will conjure, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. A few secrets to health and wellbeing that might not help you win your war, but have the potential to help you conquer a few battles.
Find the right person to share your life with.
I’ll address this point first, because I wholeheartedly feel it’s the most important. In a society that embraces independence, we often dismiss the fact that our partner plays a role in determining who we are – but that’s nonsense. Undeniably and inexorably, the person that you wake up next to every morning does affect your life. He or she affects your mood, and your wellbeing, and even your personality. So choose wisely.
The woman I’m now lucky enough to call my wife changed the way I thought about mental health. Before I met her, I considered my depression a part of me. I saw it as something that I could control, but didn’t have the strength to. And I had accepted that. I was okay with it. I had come to terms with my disease long before she came along, but she brought a slightly different perspective that changed everything. To make a long story short, she gave it a name. She made it its own entity. One particularly dark day, she referred to my depression as “the Babadook”. Suddenly, it took on a form. It was a thing – this being that wasn’t actually a part of me at all, but just something that lived inside of me. Like my heart, my lungs, my soul… it was in there for the long haul, but it was also something I could keep quiet if I worked hard enough. It was a part of my existence, and separate from it all at the same time.
So whether you choose to understand depression in that way or not, the point is this: your partner’s outlook on your mental health will either tear you down, or build you up. Your significant other doesn’t control how you deal with your depression any more than the depression itself, but they do control how they deal with it, and that matters. So as I said, choose wisely.
Don’t use your disease as a reason to stop asking “why”.
Seasonal depression, otherwise known as Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a form of depression that comes and goes depending on the time of year. While it’s often a result of the weather, don’t rule out the possibility that there’s something else going on. Do you work more hours in the spring? Do you do less yoga in the winter? If you struggle with SAD, your mental health may be suffering as a result of circumstances rather than the season or a chemical imbalance.
Make an effort to pinpoint what causes you stress or drains your energy, and then connect the dots. If you find you’re feeling extremely down on specific days, try digging to the root of the issue. Keeping a journal can be extremely beneficial for this purpose, even if you just jot down a few sentences about your mood and activities each day. Whatever you do, remember this: your depression has an origin. It is not random. It is built on a foundation, and anything with a foundation can be broken down.
Find a balance between movement and rest.
Sluggishness and fatigue are primary side effects of depression. Of course, when you’re experiencing these feelings, the last thing you want to do is get up and move. But, as I’m sure you’ve heard before, engaging in physical activity is one of the best ways to combat the blues. Not only does it release endorphins – a naturally occurring chemical in your body that improves your mood – it also gives your mind something to think about besides feeling crummy.
Now, this is where it gets tricky. I used to use movement – specifically, exercise – as a way to distract myself from the sadness. I used to run and run and run until I couldn’t run anymore and then, not surprisingly, I would crash. My energy would plummet and exhaustion would set in, ultimately leading to a low mood. So just keep in mind that overdoing it can have the opposite affect you want it to. The activities you constantly engage in to distract yourself can quickly deplete you. Take it easy and give your body rest when it needs it, just avoid becoming lethargic. It’s all about balance, people.
“Your depression has an origin. It is not random. It is built on a foundation, and anything with a foundation can be broken down.”
Light up your life.
Dragging yourself off the couch and sauntering around the block will do more good than just keep you active. It’ll also expose you to more sunlight, which increases your vitamin D and serotonin levels, both factors that contribute to a happy demeanor. I remember during one of my darkest points – no pun intended – I used to get home from work every day and immediately shut the curtains in my apartment. It was as if my body was resisting sunlight – that’s how unhappy I was. In a weird way, I wanted my environment to match my disposition, so I blocked out the light and hid from anything resembling joy. Needless to say, it became a vicious cycle. When I stopped going to work, I took action and contacted a therapist. I explained to her that I had been seeking solitude in darkness, and she wisely advised me to stop shutting the curtains. The lesson here is twofold: 1) when you sense a negative cycle, do everything in your power to break free of it, no matter how much resistance you meet. 2) Never stop letting the light in.
If you live in Canada like I do, your access to light is limited at certain points of the year. But don’t fret. While there’s no true substitute for sunshine, light therapy is a fairly new method of healing that uses lights (no surprise) to elevate mood. Research has shown that certain types of light activate parts of the brain that are associated with mood and sleep. Lack of access to this light inhibits the release of serotonin in your body, which ultimately depresses you. Light therapy lamps or boxes mimic natural light, having a similar affect to sunshine in boosting serotonin. I’ve never used one of these as I’m quite partial to sunshine, but I had a friend who would sit in front of her light box – her happy box, as she called it – for hours every night. It worked wonders for her depression.
“NEVER STOP LETTING THE LIGHT IN.”
Eat, and eat well.
There is no specific diet that has been irrefutably proven to combat depression. If that was true, there would be no reason for me to write this blog. That being said, it has been scientifically verified again and again that eating real food can lessen symptoms of depression and even work as effectively as antidepressants for some people. Fake food – that is, processed, fast and commercial – is linked to depression. It decreases your chances of getting the essential nutrients your body needs, while filling your body with additives, such as refined sugar and artificial flavours, that contribute to mood disorders.
A real or “whole” diet works by stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing mood swings. Whether you opt to transition to veganism, a paleo diet, or simply commit to eating clean, the healthy fuel you put into your body will naturally increase serotonin levels. Foods that contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (fish is the primary source) and healthy fats like coconut oil and avocado enhance serotonin naturally, acting by the same accord as anti-depressants – without the side effects. Certain supplements can achieve this as well – St. John’s Wort, fish oil and L-Tyrosine all boost serotonin.
Author’s note: Caffeine lowers serotonin levels, but I’m going to avoid spending too much time on this point, because I don’t like to preach what I don’t practice…#caffeineaddict
Speaking of practice, one thing that I can highly recommend based on personal experience is yoga. If any of you reading this are returning visitors to my website, I apologize for beating a dead horse. But, like air and water, yoga is one of my lifelines, and I will never stop shouting that from the rooftops. Before I embraced yoga as part of my daily life, battling my depression was a much more challenging task. I struggled on a regular basis with something that I now recognize as a lack of mindfulness. In other words, yoga taught me the magic of being present, of achieving and maintaining balance, and of cleansing my soul of negativity.
Putting my personal opinion aside, yoga and meditation have been highly documented for having a drastic effect on mood. On a chemical level, these practices increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter in your brain responsible for emotion and pleasure sensors (which explains why yoga is so addicting). Besides increasing dopamine, yoga offers a whole host of benefits that ultimately allow you to rid yourself of distracting thoughts that cloud the ability to self-reflect – a key aspect of recognizing what’s going on deep down. When it comes to coping with depression, being in touch with yourself is crucial, and yoga can help you achieve this like nothing else.
Fortunately, our society is slowly beginning to accept mental health as a common illness. It’s no longer something that’s frowned upon, and therefore it’s no longer something to be embarrassed about. If you want to keep a handle on your disease, I can’t stress this point enough: be open about it. Talk to your boss, your family, and your friends. Make everyone aware that it’s something you’re living with.
Being open about your health will take the pressure off you by tearing down emotional restrictions and putting you at liberty to be you. There’s an unparalleled freedom in full-disclosure that allows you to live your life without having to “fake it”. This act of faking happy is something that most of us, even those not struggling with mental health, are far too familiar with, and it goes without saying that it’s extremely counter-productive to your well-being. Embrace the freedom that honesty brings, and be true to how you feel.
Talk it out.
While we’re on the topic of being honest, it’s important to note that, for some people, talk therapy is lifesaving. If you haven’t already given it a shot, consider seeing a therapist or a life coach. Expressing how you feel is extremely therapeutic. Don’t expect that this professional will tell you how to slay your demons once and for all – it doesn’t work like that. But it does make management easier. Even just having an outlet for your emotions, and a caring ear, can work wonders. Be sure to do some research and try out a few different options. Simply settling with someone because theirs was the first office you walked into won’t cut it. Find someone you trust; someone who makes you feel good. Then talk it out, shame-free, and feel the weight being lifted.
“This act of faking happy is something that most of us, even those not struggling with mental health, are far too familiar with, and it goes without saying that it’s extremely counter-productive to your well-being.”
Last but not least, be happy. I know this seems like a silly point to address. If it were that easy, you wouldn’t be here reading this self-help blog. But going back to the point about mindfulness, being happy is actually a self-regulated emotion. Your mind does not control you – you control your mind. Clichés aside, studies have shown that redirecting your mind toward positive thoughts actually boosts your serotonin and dopamine – those happy chemicals we talked about earlier. In fact, over time, thinking happy thoughts can actually rewire your brain to be chronically happy rather than chronically sad.
So shake it off, smile, and focus on the good. Do things you enjoy. And whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up for being sad every once in a while. Embrace all the ups and downs by telling yourself that everything you’re feeling is okay. Ask yourself how you would treat a friend in a similar state of mind – would you punish them, or comfort them? I’m guessing the latter.
Like all diseases, depression is complicated and cannot be cured by covering up the symptoms. In order to truly combat your Babadook, you need to get to the root of what makes him tick. What triggers him? What feeds him? What makes him go back into hiding? Once you’re able to figure these things out, you’ll gradually be able to keep him at bay for longer stretches of time. It’ll be a slow – and oftentimes painful – process, but like anything that takes work, it’ll be worth it.
Emily Watson is a freelance writer and certified yoga and medical Qi Gong instructor. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature and has been writing – creatively and otherwise – for ten years. Off the mat and away from the keyboard, Emily can be found hiking, camping and traveling with her wife and fur babies. She currently lives and works for a publishing company in Peterborough, Ontario.