Take back control of your depression with small lifestyle changes

Depression can be isolating, and treatment is rarely immediate. However you can help your treatment and take back a measure of control of your depression by making one or two small adjustments to your everyday life.

Small Changes = Taking Back Control

Depression affects approximately 264 million people every year, and while you should always go to your doctor and take the medication they prescribe; there are other things you can do to aid the effects of the medication. 

First off this is not a list of alternatives to medication or professional help, if you suffer from depression or think you may suffer then you should see a doctor. They will help to determine what course of action needs to be taken and will provide on going help and support. Depression IS a medical condition and should be treated as such.

That being said, medication alone is often not enough to combat the full effects of depression and should be combined with therapy; talking with a professional can help identify and deal with any underlying issues which may hinder treatment. A professional therapist will work with you and create a treatment pathway specifically for you based on your needs and how you respond to treatment. If you find that talking to your therapist is not helping or that you are not comfortable talking to them; find another. There is no guilt involved, you must be comfortable with your therapist for treatment to work and they will understand that.

Treating depression is often a winding road and it can be disheartening if you don’t feel a huge difference immediately; fortunately there are other ways in which you can help yourself in addition to following your prescribed treatments. These are a few ideas which can help you take back control of a particular part of your life which previously may have made you feel helpless. 

Are you getting enough sleep?

Recent studies have confirmed the importance of getting enough sleep for mental and physical health. Sleep deprivation can lead to all sorts of problems including anxiety, paranoia, irritability, anger and depression. A lack of sleep can also affect the way the brain actually performs. Different people have different thresholds for how much sleep they can get by on and how much they require to function optimally, however a good base guide is 6-8 hours. This does not mean several hours of sitting in bed on your phone or computer before trying for a few hours in the early hours of the morning; the blue light from screens has been shown to be detrimental to eye health and proper sleep. The sleep cycle is rather complicated but can be very basically summarised as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM); a person will go through several cycles per night and the amount of time spent in either NREM or REM varies considerably. Very generally people experience more NREM in the earlier hours of their sleep and more REM in the later hours, so if your sleep pattern means you spend more time in REM sleep then your brain and body are missing out on the ‘deep sleep’ of NREM.

Are you getting enough exercise?

Exercise has been shown to be highly effective in relieving symptoms of depression and stress as well as improving sleep and memory. When you exercise your body releases endorphins which promote feelings of wellbeing, it promotes neural growth and reduces inflammation in the brain which can lead to feelings of calmness. Exercise also helps people to feel better about themselves in general, making them more aware of what they CAN do and achieve as well as encouraging them to focus on something other than their depression for a while. 

When we say exercise we do not mean you need to start running 5km a day or getting up at 5am to go to the gym- although if that helps then more power to you! Moderate exercise can be as simple as taking a 10 minute brisk walk every day or spending some time doing yoga. If you feel up to taking a class then the social aspect of group exercise will also help to alleviate some symptoms of depression. The Japanese art of forest bathing has recently become trendy, with people rushing to be seen to be doing it, but it is a practise that goes back decades. Shinrin yoku as it is called involves spending time in a forest, disconnecting from the modern and stressful world and reconnecting to nature. It is also worth noting that walking in nature has more of an effct on lowering stress and depression symptoms than spending the same amount of time walking in an urban area. Many health practitioners are beginning to prescribe time outdoors to patients for a wide variety of health concerns and again, this time outdoors can be as simple as walking through a park and/or having a picnic.

Everyone is different and everyone will have a different starting point, the important thing to remember is that you only need to focus on what you are doing. 

Are you spending too much time on a screen?

The modern world relies heavily on technology and most people simply cannot go through a single day without using at least one form of it; whether it is their mobile phone, laptop, fitbit or tablet. For many people their job involves technology and therefore they spend an average of 40-50 hours a week on a computer just for work! Then they go home, maybe reading a kindle or swiping on their phone on the way there, and watch T.V. or play games on a computer. Maybe they have friends or family in a different state or country and the easiest way to communicate is using a computer. The problem is that so much screen time stresses out the eyes and the brain as well as socially isolating us from human contact. 

Social media can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and depression by constantly forcing people to see other people having a wonderful time or succeeding when they themselves may be feeling down or stuck. People usually only put the best of their lives on social media, leading to others constantly feeling inferior because they are not living in the same way as those they follow. The immediacy of modern technology has also started to train our brains to expect instant gratification and results; we want to watch that thing now or we want to know this information now! This can lead to extreme fluctuations in mood when real life doesn’t follow the same pattern and cell phone addiction is a real and growing problem in today’s world.

It is important to take time away from digital devices on a regular basis; take a walk, read an actual book, physically visit a friend or family member. Whatever it is, schedule it into your diary if need be; maybe combine it with exercise to really maximise the beneficial effects.

Talk to someone

While talking to a professional is highly recommended and encouraged throughout your treatment, it may also be a good idea to talk to a friend, family member, or even someone who is going through something similar.  Humans are social creatures and require social interaction to maintain a healthy lifestyle, there are numerous studies which show the benefit of having healthy relationships with others. Having poor connections with other people can be as damaging to on going health as bad blood pressure or heart disease, and people who have healthy social connections live longer than those without. However people with depression find it difficult to foster and maintain social interactions, and indeed may react more negatively to what they perceive as a negative social interaction. That is to say they may feel that an awkward or negative interaction is worse than it actually is, which in turn fosters feelings of hopelessness and isolation etc. Conversely people with more severe depression may react more strongly to positive social interaction than those with less severe depression. This is something to bear in mind: people who suffer from depression need to be mindful of their perceptions versus other people’s. However the benefits of social interaction cannot and should not be ignored; it can be as involved or time heavy as the individual needs or wants. 

Your therapist may have support groups they can recommend for you, or you could just make a point of meeting regularly with a friend or family member for a chat.

In Summary, depression can be isolating and can feel like it’s dragging you down, and while medication is helpful and effective it can be empowering for patients to actively take charge in aspects of their own treatment. Simple additions or changes to your lifestyle can increase the effectiveness of treatment and help you regain some control of your life where before you may have felt powerless.

So what are you waiting for? Take that walk in the park, make that coffee date or even pick up the phone and call someone, you can do it.

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