Do you or does someone close to you ever struggle with depression? I want to start out by telling you that I was diagnosed with depression as a teenager and depression runs throughout my family pretty heavily, but still sometimes I don’t know how much I believe in depression.
When things are good, I am in a regular routine, and I stay focused, I don’t feel even a glimpse of a rain cloud over my head. But some days, when I wake up late, didn’t get enough sleep, lack motivation, or spend too much time wasting time I feel stuck in a vacuum of sadness
I am not here to tell you depression doesn’t exist, certainly science has shown that certain people have levels of neurotransmitters that are not optimal and cause very real, physical and mental symptoms. My mind sometimes wonders however; is depression a self fulfilling prophecy, is depression primary or secondary, and how much can symptoms be managed with properly taken actions?
When I was 16 or 17 I went on a trial of Lexapro (a popular antidepressant). At that time I was often depressed and sad, felt misplaced and rejected, and I suffered from a lot of the general angsts of many teenagers. To compound issues, I had bonding problems with my father, my parents were divorced, I moved a lot from city to city and changed schools, I was a hopeless romantic and had my feelings hurt many times, I thought too much, and I was a philosophical young man. I was often up and down, with wildly productive and amazing highs, and drastically low lows. Between pondering life, heartbreak, the meaning of existence, and my own lack of solitude I often had troubles sleeping at night.
One of the first things I noticed after taking my antidepressant was that I could finally sleep at night, but then other things started changing too. Soon I felt like a zombie: in wrestling practice I felt like I couldn’t ever be aggressive enough, I never felt happy or sad (just a general sense of nothingness), and while my depressive episodes leveled off, I never felt my powerfully passionate bursts of energy and creativity.
So eventually I stopped taking my pills. I was sad for a while, and I went through a couple years of grinding until I finally figured out what I wanted. One summer day (on a summer break from nursing school) it finally hit me: I was sitting and listening to a new favorite band of mine at the time (band of horses) and I was listening to how happy they sounded, how much joy was in the words of their songs.
It came to me that I too could choose to write happy poems, I too could experience joy, if they could do it, so could I. So I made a commitment to look for the light in life instead of the dark, I chose to listen to songs that make me smile instead of songs that made me want to cry. At 19 I became a different person and I have continued to evolve since that day. I have stayed on that same path now for years.
I no longer identify myself as depressed. Sure sometimes I feel down, sad, even hopeless, but it never lasts for long. Through goal setting, focusing on my passion, working hard, eating right and exercising I have managed my depression to the point that I no longer believe in its power over my life.
So is depression a self fulfilling prophecy?
Working as a nurse, I have seen a lot of people change completely when they receive a negative diagnosis. I have seen people radiant with life get diagnosed with cancer and turn into a walking corpse before my eyes. There is something you see in the medical field that can only be explained by a special vitality and will to live- even in the elderly I see special individuals every day that are sometimes 90 years old but with more life than many of the 20 year olds I know. When someone has a certain attitude, a certain love and appreciation for life it gives them a very special energy that carries on with them until they decide they are done living.
If things in life were going badly, if it seemed that every morning you woke up something was wrong or off, wouldn’t it be simple if a Doctor could just tell you that you suffer from depression? If something was wrong and you didn’t know what it was, wouldn’t you just want someone to tell you what the problem is? Maybe you are going through a hard time, but maybe the feelings you are experiencing are a natural part of the grieving process. When a Doctor writes you a prescription and sends you to the pharmacy, don’t you become a victim to the way you feel? Don’t you accept that there is something going on outside of your control?
Again the question here isn’t is depression real, certainly for some it is, to some extent yes there are very real and physical effects from a lack of certain neurotransmitters, but if you decide there is nothing you can do about it, if you accept that you are depressed and it’s just the way it is, aren’t you committing yourself to a lifetime of depression? Aren’t you allowing depression to overtake your own powerful individual will?
People can be predisposed to lower levels of chemicals in their brains, and this can increase one’s risk of becoming depressed, but just like some people are predisposed to obesity or cancer, it doesn’t mean that bad genetics ensures that you have to be depressed, overweight, or get cancer. While some variables are out of our control, we can still use our daily actions to manage our risk factors and decrease the influence of our genetics over our lives.
Is depression a primary disorder, or is it a secondary result of something else?
One major question I have is this: is depression its own disorder, or does depression result from other factors? A large number of diseases called metabolic disorders are becoming more prevalent in the United States and throughout the world. Diseases like: type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity, and heart disease are all brought about primarily through our lifestyle choices. All of these diseases have a genetic component, but they are also associated with risk factors that are from lifestyle. Things like: exercise levels, stress levels, diet, environmental exposure, and career choice can all affect your incidence of getting these metabolic diseases.
Depressions and sleep- depression is often associated with lack of sleep. Lack of sleep is often listed as a side effect of depression, but it can be very difficult to pinpoint which comes first. Studies and research show that the less sleep you get the more depressed you become, and the more depressed you become the less sleep you get. “In people who have bad insomnia and bad depression, it is often very difficult to tell which came first,” says Mark Mahowald, MD, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Hennepin County. “Sleep deprivation can impair mood, and impaired mood can result in impaired quality and quantity of sleep.” (1.)
It has been found that many different factors can influence or “trigger” depressive episodes in people. Personality and negative thinking, medical illness or poor health, drug and alcohol use, lack of sleep, stress, and even exercise level can affect your feeling of depression. (2.)
So if so many things affect depression, trigger depression, or cause depression, wouldn’t it stand to reason that depression is something that can be managed, even without the use of medications? If depression can be caused by all of these things, then is depression really a primary disorder, or is it the result of other negative lifestyle habits and environments that produce depression and sadness?
Can depression be managed with lifestyle changes and healthy choices?
There is some evidence that things like exercise, diet, changing thought habits, getting more sleep, and reducing stress can reduce and help people manage depression. Exercise can help replace some of the lost neurotransmitters that people with depression suffer from, and it also helps increase people’s feelings of confidence and happiness- helping with mood (3). The anxiety and depression association of America recommends relaxation techniques and physical exercise to reduce the feelings of depression and anxiety, and there is also significant evidence that people who eat poor quality foods and diets have an increased risk of depression (4.)
Eat a better diet. Eating more whole foods and less processed and artificial foods will help manage your symptoms of depression. Avoid processed carbohydrates and sugars, and choose whole grains instead. Not only will eating healthier make you feel physically better, but it will also increase your feelings of self esteem and worth. As you feel better, you will be more apt to love yourself more.
Exercise regularly. Regular exercise will help produce endorphins and neurotransmitters that ease the symptoms of depression, and regular exercise also aids in a more restful sleep at night. Exercise, like a healthy diet, will make you feel better and it will produce positive physical changes that will make you happier, more confident, and more productive as well.
Develop positive thinking. Learning to think positively about yourself and life, developing self love and confidence, and choosing to view life as a happy and positive event will all contribute greatly to your sense of happiness and joy in life. Just committing to learning the tricks of positive thinking and making them integrated habits can change your life for the better.
Reduce stress. Committing to the other habits on this list will reduce your stress naturally (exercise, diet, and positive thinking), but also committing to calming activities that you enjoy will reduce depression as well. Practice mediation, painting, walks through nature, or any activity that helps you relax and center yourself.
Get more sleep. I already covered above how lack of sleep and depression are a continuing cycle. By doing the other things on this list, you should be able to sleep a little better at night. Make sure to go to bed early enough to get sufficient sleep each night, even if you aren’t tired.
I have almost completely eliminated my depression with the use of these positive lifestyle changes. Some days are still a little worse than others, but usually even when I feel worst, if I get out of bed, drink a lot of water, exercise early in the day, and start working on something meaningful I can snap out of it. You will still have sad days, and should have sad days- it’s all part of the human experience, just don’t allow your sadness to become the veil of depression that blocks out the joy of life.
The goal in life should not be to eliminate all sadness in life, but rather to learn to listen to it more deeply. Are you feeling depressed because you feel hopeless, you miss someone, or you don’t like you appearance? There are always reasons that we feel the way that we feel and if we take active steps to feel better, many times just trying something else is enough to snap us out of a funk.
Want to learn more ways to increase your happiness, find your purpose, or get start making positive changes?