In response to Peter May’s post of a few days ago, I didn’t want to leave Mental Health Awareness Week without mentioning some positive and potent lifestyle changes that can be adopted to combat the kind of low-grade anxiety and depression many of us are now subject to. Anger, frustration, disquiet, helplessness, fuelled by division, have become the daily fare and you might go as far as to say that if you’re not depressed to some degree at the moment, then you might well be in need of some psychological help! It’s not easy. The World Health Organisation website tells us that the current generations is 4 times as depressed as the previous one and the previous one was ten times more depressed than the one before it. This depression epidemic should shock us to the core but we seem to be taking it in our stride. Perhaps it’s because so much is in crisis we don’t know where to look next. Just a thought. 🙂
In the meantime what can we do about it? What works? Well believe it or not, there are some very simple but underused and undervalued lifestyle changes that make huge differences, both as contributors to, and treatments for multiple pathologies. They continue to be underestimated despite considerable evidence of their effectiveness in both clinical and normal populations. They are all intuitive.
- Time in Nature.
- Relaxation stress management.
- Religious of spiritual involvement.
- Service to Others.
Exercise. Yes, just move more. Your multiple body systems will be grateful. Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise has way more benefits than anti-depressants. Exercise is better still if it’s taken in nature. Being in nature for an hour a day helps the mood go up naturally and improves the clarity of your thoughts. Furthermore it has no known side-effects except a feeling of well-being. Ask Richard Murphy.
A downside is that it doesn’t make big bucks for drug companies. 🙂 We seem to have forgotten the wisdom of the ages. For thousands of years, wise elders in every tradition used nature as a source of healing and insight. For thousands of years, the ancient Celts, the Shamans in the wilderness, the Yogis in the forest, the Christian Fathers in the desert, the American Indians on their nature quests knew and understood the value of connecting with nature. Nature is grounding. It reminds you of the important things in life, like the idea that you are already whole, but you have just temporarily forgotten.
Diet- More than 160 separate studies suggests that dietary factors are so important that the mental health of nations may be linked to them. The main advice is to follow a diet that consists mainly of a rainbow assortment of fruit and vegetables. Preference should be given to oily fish (twice a week) which is high in Omega 3, an anti-inflammatory. The Mediterranean diet is particularly helpful and some, like me, favour food combining. I endorse this book as thoroughly common sensical: “The Complete Book of Food Combining by Kathren Marsden“.
To diet I would also add sleep.
Too many people, (including me till I worked it the solution for myself) suffer from chronic sleep debt. Not getting enough sleep affects mood badly. The way we eat and drink and what we eat and drink, too much ‘brain work’ combined with oxidative stress, can have knock on effects on sleep patterns. For example, eating a highly refined diet with too much alcohol or sugary drinks, with a high stress lifestyle, has been shown to rob the body of much needed magnesium. When a healthy diet is followed with plenty leafy greens, nuts and pulses, sleep can often correct itself very quickly as the body gets its much needed supply of this nature’s ‘calmer’.
The evidence says that the worst possible thing for depression is isolation. We are a social species. We are meant for relationship. When we connect with others showing love, we can work our way out of depressive episodes. When our social connections are lacking we suffer. Pre- internet, people spent much more time in social groups than they do now. Sitting in isolation at electronic devices for long periods is not what we were designed for, but many young people would rather text, than engage in face to face encounters where they have to read body language or read subtext.
We are an interdependent species hard-wired for empathy and relationship and yet both the number of and intimacy of relationships is declining. We have much yet to discover about the many implications of artificial environments like social network sites but suffice it to say that the idea of good relationships are central to both physical and mental well-being is an ancient theme. Happy relationships=happy people. Spend more time out and about in community and less time on-line.
Involvement in enjoyable activities is central to healthy lifestyles, and the word recreation “re-creation” underlines the main benefit because it actually does help you become more creative. Play and playfulness in children is well known to reduce defensiveness and enhance well-being; it also fosters social skills and maturation. Why should adults be any different? Music and humour are well known mood enhancers. John Stuart Mill— one of history’s outstanding intellectual prodigies—spent his childhood force-feeding himself with facts. However, when at 20 he fell into a severe depression, he turned to the arts—music, painting, and especially poetry—for self-therapy, and these, his biographer reported, were what “saved him.”
Relaxation stress management
Stress is everywhere and to some extent we all suffer, but added to that we are now facing an array of added stressors – you know your own! Many of us feel the political polarisation badly. There used to be a degree of ideological overlap between the left and the right. We used to be able to come and go with people and compromise, but now compromise seems to mean one side or the other getting it all its own way. We seem to be short of historical precedents from which to draw some wisdom or coping skills. So, many of us respond un-skilfully or even self-destructively yet skilful strategies for stress management are available. As well as exercise in nature and really any kind of aerobic exercise that you enjoy, there’s the Chinese mindful moment of Tai Chi and Qui Gong, and Self Hypnosis and Guided Imagery which are valuable relaxations tools. Meditation and Yoga practiced by millions of people worldwide with results that speak for themselves. 30 minutes a day can lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/mindfulness-meditation
Religious or spiritual involvement
However religion or spirituality is experienced, whatever it means to the individual, it is an extremely important part of mental health for many people. The importance of religious and spiritual practices as a major means of coping with stress, illness, relationship issues, is one that we don’t seem to explore enough. And that’s because it’s difficult to talk about. Multiple levels of religious development are associated with very different kinds of faith, practice and behaviour and values. http://www.psychologycharts.com/james-fowler-stages-of-faith.html
The egocentric concerns and certainties of those who believe in the literal interpretation of scripture will look quite different from those who open themselves to multiple perspectives, are at home with paradox, and extend their care and concern for all peoples. When we fail to grasp the developmental nature of religion we end up lumping it all together and then the problems ensue. Religion is accused of causing more problems than it solves. This is tragic. And its where were at right now in the culture.
Today we’re asking our young people to try to make sense of their lives in our post-truth world, (or even anti-truth world) by rejecting all religious ideas, even ideas of truth itself. And yet we don’t seem to bat and eyelid when they go into existential crisis. Of course it’s true that ‘religious’ behaviour can sometimes be regressive or pathological, but it can also foster mature and even exceptionally mature development and psychological wholeness. Healthy religion, impacts positively on lifestyle, mental health and moral compass. It continues to be the way millions of people all over the world see through the hyper-reality of the virtual world and the associated illusions of advertising and general falseness we are subjected to on a daily basis.
Service to Others
Once thought of as sacrifice, it is now widely recognised that service to others can benefit both giver and receiver and fosters qualities such as altruism, happiness and mental health. This suggests that helping oneself and others can be intimately linked. Volunteers have been found to be psychologically happier, healthier and may even live longer. However there is a qualifier. When one feels overwhelmed by the constant care required by a long term sufferer with a progressive illness for example, burnout is common. If service is motivated by pleasure in helping that is one thing, but when the carer is driven by a sense of internal pressure or obligation, positive outcomes associated with helping may not be so evident. This is why community and political interventions are crucial.
There are of course other factors that affect mental well-being, but these eight are I think a very good start. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. Perhaps depression is sometimes the result of not having examined our lives deep enough. Perhaps it is as a result of living our lives in-authentically. Political division can be disturbing, but one good thing is it gives us ample opportunity to take a deeper look at our values and how the way we are living our lives is either reflecting them or denying them. When we live with integrity life can be a lot more satisfying.