How To Mitigate Depression: Research Insights

Every kind of depression is a combination of brain chemicals and environment. Major predictors for depression are bad habits which build up into a worse depression: isolative tendencies, bad sleep, apathy, toxic relationships, drug use that damages neurochemistry, and brutal fatalistic self-image. Some depressions, like bipolar, are chemical imbalances inherent to the brain, but even then environmental interaction affects brain chemistry. A major mistake depressives make is thinking of their condition as somehow over or predetermining their subjective wellbeing, rather than interacting with their person and thinking. (This is the best lecture from a hero of mine, Robert Sapolsky, on depression, )

As Neuroscientist Alex Korb details in The Upward Spiral quitting the downward spiral of bad habits: smoking, binge drinking, binge internet shopping or pornography, and bad influences makes a healthier brain and therefore a happier mind.

Our brains work by Hebb’s law, which dictates, the less you do something the less the brain cells responsible fire and so will eventually wither if neglected. Thankfully, ‘Use it or Lose it’ applies to bad habits as much as good. You do have partial free will: the prefrontal cortex can inhibit impulses. The best way to quit is limiting bad habits so that they wither, without quitting them which has a paradoxical effect of making them press on the brain more than ever, in its reaction urge to repeat past patterns. Without the neuroscience, Charles Duhigg illustrates this in his brilliant The Power of Habitwhere successful quitting means substituting an alternative and no mythic ‘clean break’ from an ingrained way of daily life.

1.) Aerobic exercise for 15-30 minutes per day

In this amazing Guide to Brain Fitness Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School recommends 15-30 minutes of exercise a day – plus more. Actual exercise (sweating, raised heart rate) over mere ‘activity’ like walking has more bio-effect. If you can do more you’re usually meant to do more.

2.) Eat the necessary balance of nutrients at each meal

You know the stuff that became and becomes your body. Pretty important. The best diet is one of these. Think of your body as a car; you can’t expect to work with the wrong fuels. John B. Arden, the author of Rewire Your Brain endorses three meals to keep a “consistent” neurochemistry which avoids ups and downs.

3.) Socialise with people you like, love, or at least find tolerable every day, and in person.

Isolation often, statistically, precedes depression; people can drive you to annoyance but do actually make you happier. If you need encouragement set calendar reminders to socialize with friends, and to call or message them, say, once a fortnight at least. (I do this, I have to otherwise I just won’t bother.) A study in Taiwan demonstrated boosted well-being for women churchgoers and men political party members. Membership is beneficial because of the obligatory socialising. Psychology professor Sonja Lyburmoskisy – in The How of Happiness – says the best way to improve your life is to invest in your relationships.

4.) Practice your skills or talents for some hours each day

Consistent pleasures go far in making happiness; if they are socially valuable and respected all the better to boost happiness–dependent on reputation. Playing Zelda may be fun, but it’d be more fun with someone you love watching (for social and pride reasons) or getting a dance grading more fun for your mental health overall than ‘escapism’. Though absorbing activities are good for sanity. More hours doing these a day makes for a happier person according to The Psychology of Happiness.

5.) Sun exposure

The research is clear that insufficient and deficient Vitamin D is so strongly linked to depression as to certainly be causal. Time in the sun heightens mood in itself but also increases Vitamin D – the deficiency of which causes some depressions – and increases melatonin. Melatonin, the hormone that maintains body chemistry for healthy sleep cycles. Wear high SPF sunscreen if you don’t want to look old earlier than needs be, or to risk skin cancer. Too dark outside? Get a Seasonal Affective Disorder grade lamp such as this one. SAD lamps can even help with healthy sleep too by affecting the release of melatonin which induces sleep. (And almonds contain vitamin D, my plant-based diet helps me through winter months.)

6.) Healthy sleep.

Sleep matters, a lot. Sleep is like putting a car into the garage or turning the computer off: it allows for metaphorical repairs, restarts and, reboots that determine your mood through the conscious hours. Depressives routinely sleep too long to too short: 6.5-9 hours is usually optimum but it depends on your body. To get a good night’s sleep log how you feel at different hours of waking and perhaps use a REM sleep calculator or app to wake at the right time in order to more probably prefer breakfast to a worryless abyss.

7.) Fake it till you make it.

What psychologists call embodied cognition dictates that acting happy and forcing smiles actually tricks yourself into that result. The facial muscles in a smile trick the brain into ‘smiling’ as can deliberate laughing become genuine enjoyment. Neuroscientists call this biofeedback.

8.) Try Effective Placebo.

The parasitic supplement industry thrives on the desire for quick fixes. Some though, like Omega 3 DHA and EPA, have shown brain benefits in longitudinal studies, in preventing the onset of dementia, through feeding fatty neurons their necessary fats. Neuroscience researchers like Sandrine Thuret of King’s College London – study here have shown new brain stem cells in other mammals with Omega 3 consumption. Even if Omega 3 doesn’t work for materially alleviating depression, as a placebo it works to make you feel better psychologically which is the desired result anyway.

“But blogger guy, how do I do this? I’m depressed… I don’t wanna do anything, it exhausts me. I can barely wash myself.”

It’s brutally hard at times… More than I could ever know, for some. Cognitive behavioural therapy and medicine may help. Yet in routine life, keep it simple, keep it regular and keep it socially supported. Every time it is too much and you want to lapse into less good behaviour just say ‘I’ll do it for 5 minutes’ to 10-15-20 minutes–and extend that time as you progress. Forgive yourself mistakes to avoid stressing and falling into bad habits. Day after day it more probably catches on. Research shows this. Increase good habits; decrease bad habits. Repetition makes a habit, and in turn unmakes others. Remember Hebb’s law, from the start?

The initial lazy hurdle repeated day-by-day is all it takes to establish as a habit that becomes second-nature. Remind yourself to be rational and realistic about what is actually the end of the world and what is not, even when horrible sensations wrongly suggest otherwise. No reply doesn’t mean they despise you, a low wage doesn’t make you a lesser person, and so on.

If that’s not enough?

For a near effortless boost try five long hugs a day, eminent psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky has shown it significantly increases reported happiness. If no one is hug friendly (sorry about that) reference Sonja or this article: oxytocin secretion does not lie. Or be more normal – well normative – and find someone happy to hug you.

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