A few years ago I suffered from sever depression. It was so bad that I was getting sick every morning and wasn’t able to sleep during the night. I couldn’t even concentrate on simple tasks and it was affecting all areas of my life. It crept up on me, and before I knew it I was a mess.
I wanted to write this article to explain what I did to beat depression and what steps I would take if depression were to come into my life again. Today I am happier then i’ve ever been, and I have a much greater understanding of what exactly depression is and how to avoid it.
What Is Depression?
“Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable. Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.
Depression symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include:
Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
Loss of energy or increased fatigue
Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others)
Feeling worthless or guilty
Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
Thoughts of death or suicide”
I am going to continue you assuming you have a through understanding of what depression is.
How I Beat Depression / Anxiety
There are many different kinds of depressions as well as reasons or factors that could make someone depressed. Because of this, different people may have to do different things. I want to tell you how I personally beat depression – and all of the things I mention may not work for you. They are just my account of what I believed worked to help me overcome depression.
When I was depressed, I was trying all kinds of things to make me feel better and improve my life. Some of them were more effective then others and it was difficult for me to pinpoint exactly what was working and what wasn’t working. I did a lot of research and I was tracking how I felt and what my mood was like everyday. I began to see a trend emerging and was able to use this to change my life.
I began to realize that although depression is a “mental disorder” or “mental illness”, its really hard to just think your way out of it. Now I think of depression not as a mental illness, but rather as a “habitual illness“. I began to realize that depression was in many cases – including mine – an illness related to not having the proper habits in place to live a healthy lifestyle.
Let me give you an example. We know that exercise can help fight depression. When we get into the habit of exercising, we are much less likely to be depressed. Sleep can also affect your mood and can make you depressed if you are not getting enough of it. By changing how you sleep, you can help yourself recover from depression. Additionally, by creating habits to give you positive mental thoughts rather then negative thoughts (ex. through CBT described below) – you can make your mood more positive all the time.
Since I didn’t know the exact cause of my depression or anxiety, I decided to change a lot of my habits to make sure that I was living a more healthy lifestyle and adopting healthy habits. I focused on these areas:
- Mental Habits
One study (found here) shows the link between sleep disorders and depression. The study shows that the circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle) of people is altered when they have depression. Although they need to do more research in order to determine why and how circadian rhythms are affect by depression, we know that a someone who’s rythem is out of sync is more likely to be depressed.
Some habits I employ to fix my sleep schedule are:
a) wake up at the same time every day
b) go to sleep at the same time every night
c) set my alarm clock across the room so I would have to get out of bed
d) drink two glasses of water upon waking up
e) go outside immediately upon waking up
Waking up and going to sleep at the same time each day will help regulate your circadian rhythm. Additionally setting my alarm clock across the room next to my clothes got me out of bed and ready for the day. To do both of these things I created an evening routine which I would do before I went to sleep and a morning routine which I performed every morning without thinking.
Another habit I created was drinking two glasses of water in the morning. Since depression can be worsened by dehydration, and going to sleep can make you dehydrated in the morning, I made sure to drink two big glasses of water to start my day. Another habit which was fundamental to beating my depression was going outside every morning upon waking up. Although it may seem impossible that simply going outside every morning could help cure your depression, let me explain.
Your eyes contain “Intrinsically photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells (ipRGCs)” which help to set and control your circadian rhythm. When blue light (either occurring naturally from the sun or by looking at a clear sky) hits these cells, they trigger a response which tells your body that its daytime and that you should be awake. Simply by getting natural light from the sun (and not light from a lightbulb), you can help set your circadian rhythm and fix your sleep schedule. Additionally, during the summer months you will be able to get vitamin D from the natural sunlight relatively early in the morning which could also play a part in setting your sleep schedule. (NOTE: in many parts of the world during the winter the solar zenith angle of the sun is too oblique to allow for enough UVB to reach reach your skin to allow your skin to begin the process of making Vitamin D.)
I have heard that an old cure for depression was to simple put someone to work and get them moving physically. If your job keep you active thats great, but if it doesn’t you need to find some way to keep active in fight the blues. Here are the habits I created to keep fit:
a) run every morning
b) go to the gym at the same time, on the same day
c) Play sports at the same time, on the same day.
While Im outside during the morning – there is no better time to get a little bit of exercise. I have to admit that this was really difficult for me at first. Not only did I have to wake up at the same time every morning, now I had to go running – which is exactly the opposite of what I felt like doing. You may feel like its impossible for you to WANT to get up and run every morning, but there is one little rule I use to make sure I keep going.
The rule is that I have to get up every morning and take one single running step outside before I go back to sleep. Thats it. I set the bar so low that its almost impossible to fail. Most of the time however, once I start running, I begin to wake up and want to keep going. Sometimes I will do the minimum and only take a single running step – However I count this as a success and dont feel bad about not exercising. This creates positive associations with the morning and running and helps me to look forward to it every day.
What you eat and drink can definitely affect your mood. For me, I had a hard time eating anything at all and would often feel sick after just a few bites. This lead to me loosing a lot of weight and dropping to under 130 pounds (which is a lot considering I am over 6 feet tall). I decided to change my diet and get in the habit of buyer healthier foods, and making healthier decisions regarding food. I began to do the following:
a) stop consuming any drugs
b) begin eating a more healthy, balanced, and nutritious diet.
To begin with, I decided to stop eating any unhealthy foods, as well as any foods which could negatively affect my mood. This includes: caffeine, carbonated beverages, alcohol (except social drinking once a month), chips, chocolate, sugary snacks, and anything fried and greasy. At the time I believe that I was feeling so bad because I was frying all my food up with vegetable oil. I have since reduce eating most of those things. Although it was a little more expensive I began replacing them with healthier options. My parents were also able to help provide me with a more balanced diet.
I began to take a few different supplements – and I only believe in taking supplements in order to “supplement” your diet. Ideally you should be getting all of your vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from your diet, but when that isn’t possible I believe that you should be using supplements to compensate. I would recommend speaking with a doctor before taking anything, but I began to take vitamin D during the morning, and tripple strength fish oil (which high doses of EPA) and magnesium Citrate at night.
There are many studies which show how fish oil can help with depression. However there are also many studies which show that fish oil will not help with depression. I decided to take it I wasn’t eating very much fish and wanted to supplement my diet. Magnesium has a relaxing effect and I would often take it before I went to be to help me relax.
Additionally, I believe that depression is curable without resorting to any kind of drugs, and I am evidence of that. Although antidepressants can help some people, they are often no better then a placebo and it may take 3-4 different kinds of antidepressants before you find one that works. That is a lot of time and effort being put into something which many not pay off and your time could be better spent working on habits which will give you a greater return on your investment. Ultimately however it is up to you if you want to attempt to take anti-depressants or not.
One habit which can help ease your depression is drinking two glasses of water with every meal. Watercures.org talks about depression being a symptom of dehydration. Although I don’t know how scientific their study was, I am sure that being dehydrated will not help your depression. Staying away from alcohol is another thing you can do to stay more hydrated.
This section composes of a few techniques/habits which I found most effective to helping me be healthier and happier. Both of these techniques are explained below:
a) Go through CBT – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and implement habits you learn there.
b) Begin to ask interesting questions about an activity you either used to enjoy or an activity which you think you can enjoy. Force yourself to concentrate and find the answers.
b) Create positive stories about your life instead of depression ones.
CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a good starting point to being able to cure depression. I learned a lot going through the sessions and noticed a considerable difference in how I felt between the first and last session. I would recommend this as a possible solution to helping you beat depression. However CBT is only a starting point, and it is only one tool you should be using to beat depression. CBT just focuses on your thoughts and ignores diet, sleep, exercise, and everything else you should also be working on to cure your depression. I found that it was an important tool, but only a piece of the puzzle.
After going through CBT I learned how curiosity – and the interest you take in activities is correlated with how you feel. It seems that when your depressed, you lose interest in some activities and begin to think a lot about yourself in a negative way. This is called rumination – and most of the time a person will not even realize they are doing it! Depressed people tend to get into the habit of ruminating and thinking just about themselves. Here is a quote from Bertrand Russel describing how rumination can lead to your unhappiness. He explain this through an analogy about two sausage machines:
“There were once upon a time two sausage machines, exquisitely constructed for the purpose of turning pig into the most delicious sausages. One of these retained his zest for pig and produced sausages innumerable; the other said: ‘What is pig to me? My own works are far more interesting and wonderful than any pig.’ He refused pig and set to work to study his inside.
When bereft of its natural food, his inside ceased to function, and the more he studied it, the more empty and foolish it seemed to him to be. All the exquisite apparatus by which the delicious transformation had hitherto been made stood still, and he was at a loss to guess what it was capable of doing. This second sausage machine was like the man who has lost his zest, while the first was like the man who has retained it.
The mind is a strange machine which can combine the materials offered to it in the most astonishing ways, but without materials from the external world it is powerless, and unlike the sausage machine it must seize its materials for itself, since events only become experiences through the interest that we take in them: if they do not interest us, we are making nothing of them.
The man, therefore, whose attention is turned within finds nothing worthy of his notice, whereas the man whose attention is turned outward can find within, in those rare moments when he examines his soul, the most varied and interesting assortment of ingredients being dissected and recombined into beautiful or instructive patterns.”
To Bertrand Russell, ‘zest’ is your curiosity, or the amount of interest that you have in something. He explains that since its possible to lose your zest, its also possible to gain it back and you can do this just by trying. If you focus on asking interested questions and getting involved in something, you will stop worrying about yourself, and you will stop ruminating. For example, I first started learning photography when I was depressed. I started to get into it just because it was something to get into. I forced myself to ask interesting questions about photography and get in the habit of practicing photography. I began to notice that while I was editing pictures, I would completely forget about everything else. I didn’t really like editing pictures, but it was a task that just made me forget about everything else and really concentrate. I begun to get completely absorbed into photography and even ended up buying a camera and becoming a photographer.
This curiosity can spread into all areas of your life. Soon enough I found myself wanting to learn all kinds of things, and throw myself into all kinds of new experiences. I was able to replace the bad habit of rumination with thoughts about all kinds of interesting things.
Over time this can change how your brain operates. Ex. if you normally experience a negative emotion when you think of a photographer (perhaps because your ex boyfriend/girlfriend) was a photographer, you will replace this with a neutral through about something interesting in photography instead. Once you begin to get interested in something, you will begin to have more neutral/positive thoughts in general, leading to less negative emotions and less depressing thoughts. This is a huge key to rewiring your brain to give you more positive/neutral emotions instead of negative emotions.
One of the other things which helped me get over depression was to change the story of my life. When people asked how my day was going I would usually tell them I didn’t have a job and that it wasn’t going so well. This would end up leading to a conversation about depression, and how my life was terrible. This bad habit leads you to feel even more depressed, as it usually illicit’s negative responses and gets people worried about you.
To fix this habit, I began constructing positive stories about my life. When someone asked what I did for work, instead of telling them that I had to quit work due to being too depressed, I would say “Well i just quit my job – I cant believe how much more free time I have!”. I would continue the conversation about the new things im doing or would like to do in a positive way. The trick is to say the truth and be genuine with your responses, and at the same time put a positive spin on everything.
In another example: when people asked “how are you?”, instead of telling them that I am not feeling so well, and that I’m depressed, I would say “Oh, not too bad!” and then talk about a more positive topic. Soon enough this began to rewire my brain so that I was just more positive all the time. Instead of negative associations being the first thing that comes to mind, they would be positive or neutral associations.
Just as forming habits can take weeks or months, so does this rewiring of your brain. You won’t see results overnight. You may have to examine your stories and the things you have memorized to tell people often so that you can make sure they are not leading you to negative emotions.
To beat depression, I found it extremely important to focus on changing my habits to live a healthier lifestyle. However since there are many causes of depression this may just be the start. Perhaps your relationships or living situation is having a negative impact on your overall mood and you should be focusing on this instead. Ultimately every persons situation is different and they will need to use different habits and make different changes to their life to fix their depression. However depression is one of the most easily treatable conditions so there is a lot of hope and opportunity for everyone.