You've battled depression and won. You know your symptoms are likely to return. A life with depression requires the same focus on a healthy, balanced life as any other medical illness does. To function as it was intended, you have to give your brain everything it needs. Here are two “don't” and five “do” reminders for how to maximize your brain-health to stay on top of your depression.
Alcohol If you knew that carrots were a carcinogen, that they are toxic to the point of hangover or fatality if overconsumed, that they send you into an intransigent spiral into depression, that they can create a desire to eat more in spite of all the poisonous consequences, you would probably never eat another one. Making the decision to avoid alcohol requires resolve because, unlike carrots, it lures with the promise of initial relaxation and sense of well-being. When you focus on the positive image of a strong, efficient, thriving superbrain, instead of the negative image of deprivation, it becomes remarkably easy to toss it out of your life.
Smoking is often a form of self-medication for people who are depressed or anxious. It is odd that we reach for stress relief from something that creates even more stress on the body and nerves. Like other toxins, it requires our systems to spend an enormous amount of its reserves in repairing damage. Smoking more than doubles the risk of depression. If you aren't successful in quitting on your own, ask for help from your doctor or therapist.
Exercise has psychological as well as physical effects on mood. It takes you out of your ruminating, negative thoughts, especially if you're in the stimulating outsoors. It increases blood flow to the brain, including the hypothalamus that regulates mood,, and supercharges serotonin and endorphins. And it makes you feel that you've been productive. Not in the too-distant past, we all did some significant manual labor throughout the day, and our bodies and brains evolved to require it. Now in our sedentary lives, getting just 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day sometimes requires its own herculean effort. The physics law of inertia applies here (grossly paraphrased): what is at rest, stays at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. The outside force in this case has to be your determination to take the best possible care of yourself.
Eat what Nature provides and in the proportions that it provides. The Mediterranean diet is the antithesis of the average American diet which is loaded with sugars and fat and little nutrition. Nutrient rich, it includes nuts, vegetables, fruits, beans, olive oils, and grains; in smaller amounts, poultry, fish (almost no red beef), eggs, cheeses (those not high in fat), and yogurt. Prepared simply, without over-cooking or frying, they have the effect of reducing inflammation, improving blood vessel function and decreasing the ups and downs of blood sugar, all of which have a direct and powerful effect on brain function and mood. It is not the diet alone that creates health benefits, though. Eating the largest meal in the middle of the day, getting lots of sunshine and physical activity, and having a strong social component to eating are also part of this lifestyle.
Sleep is essential to mood. Too little rest makes you cranky and less able to focus on cognitive tasks. If you find it difficult to “shut it down” at night, learn the simple techniques that make it easier to get a good night's sleep.
Meditation reduces reactions to environmental stress, reduces the amount of worrying about problems, and boosts serotonin. Although purists resent the “hijacking” of meditation from the spiritual schools, it has an important role to play in the therapy of change. Meditation for therapeutic work involves focusing on a single thought or goal to be attained. The easiest way to begin, and the way I introduce it, is to focus on the breath, setting aside all other thoughts, acknowledging them as they arise and letting them float past. The resulting calm is almost always rewarding in itself. Practiced regularly, stress is no longer a stalking monster.
Know who loves you and spend time with them instead of isolating yourself. If you're lucky enough to have a wonderful familywanting to be engaged in your life, nurture those relationships with frequent communication and signs of affection. Being alone may be easy, but among the several drawbacks are falling into the dark, brooding place of depression. Use that first law of physics and be the outside force that gets you into motion.
Marilyn Miller, MS, LPC ~ Psychotherapist
...Delighting every day in helping people find peace in their lives, relieving anxiety, depression, and promoting self-care.