I’ll start off by acknowledging that many of my posts, including some of the last few, talk a lot about depression and anxiety. This is not by design, it is simply a topic that is frequently on my mind. I am always thinking about how my life choices will affect my mental state. How who I surround myself with will change how I look at the world. How what I eat affects my energy levels and in turn affects how I can handle life and the things I love to do.
Depression is somewhat of an uncomfortable topic for most people. This may be due to the fact that much of western medicine focuses on immediate, identifiable symptoms that can be prescribed a drug, or referred to a specialist, and on your way your sent. Much of our culture encourages us to struggle privately with our problems, and from a young age it is encouraged to hide emotions that are “inappropriate” in public. We aren’t encouraged to truly feel, to express. Now we have the rise of social media and the fall of real world communication and community to deal with. This has been correlated with an alarming spike in depression among everyone.
Long story short, many people suffer from depression in varying degrees. I would include myself in this population. From a very young age (as far back as I can remember), episodes of what I can now identify as depression have happened with varying frequency. By that I mean some weeks would be completely free of it, some weeks would be completely consumed by it, and sometimes the feeling was just for a day.
To describe the feeling to someone who has perhaps never experienced depression, it cannot be equated to feeling “down” that day. This is not to disparage that emotional state. Many people feel constantly “down”, and it does not lead to progress or the enjoyment of others company. Depression is another beast. It is an odd mist that floats down seemingly out of nowhere. In my experience, there is often no immediate cause, no specific point of origin. It just hits. When it does, anyone will tell you that it is hard to even begin to conceive how to get out of it. How do you deal with the world being on mute, everything being slightly out of focus, not remembering where the energy could possibly come from to perform simple tasks?
I used to regard this as commonplace. Part of my personality. When I was in grade school, video games and food provided a much-needed respite from these feelings. Thankfully I inherited an incredibly fast metabolism from my parents so weight gain as a child wasn’t an issue (I still lose weight rapidly if I don’t eat enough). Instead of gaining weight, these childhood habits led to what I know perceived as dysfunctional eating habits later on. Particularly when it came to sugar, I looked to food as a way to soothe the depressed mind (this is something I had to reckon with later, with more dental problems than I can begin to count).
In high school, a lifelong interest in music developed into a full-blown obsession. I have played piano since I was 7 years old, and was always surrounded by fantastic music by my parents. While I found a passion and possible career path, music also worked to isolate myself from my problems. I would spend hours in my room practicing. From the second I got home from school, until I went to sleep it was all music. While this worked to get technical skills under my belt, I mostly used it as an excuse to unplug from my problems and the people around me.
Around this time I met my future wife, at the improbable age of 13 in 8th grade. This remains the most mystical experience of my life, meeting someone of life-changing importance at that stage in life. For a few months at the end of eighth grade, the shadow of depression drifted away, only to return with a vengeance when Beth had to move a 4 hour drive away due to a family work change. This, combined with my mother and siblings having to a good distance away for the rest of high school(separated parents) and my predisposition for depressive states caused high school to become a blur. Most days had the fog surrounding them.
Fast forward to getting my diploma and heading out to Stone Ridge, NY to live with Beth and get a degree in music. I thought that an outward fix to my inward problems was the answer. This is a natural reaction I see in a lot of people, not just myself. The idea that a change in environment will change the way we think and feel, while not a bad place stop start, will only function as a temporary stopgap. The root of the problem is not being looked at.
We lived together for a few years , enjoying just working, going to school, and spending time with each other 24/7. These are some of the happiest memories I have, and depression wove in and out of this period.
Fast forward to senior year, and Beth get’s the news that she has non-hodgkins lymphoma, and treatment must start immediately. This ended up being the catalyst for our health journey. After coming through on the other side, both of our mental states were in disarray. We did not know how to process what had happened, and just tried to push forward with work. This worked to cover the immediate wounds, but for both of us anxiety and depression crept up under the band-aid of work we had put over it. This ended up causing serious problems in our daily lives and the ability to handle any amount of stress. Our relationship suffered with each other as well as other people. I am sure others can relate to this feeling. Just know that you are in control, not the depression. Ultimately, the answer I found was dealing with the demons in my past, and putting practices in place that make me reflect on my inner workings.
What I Do Today
We managed to push through all of this and get healthy, get married, and start a business. Some days it still creeps up. Sometimes for a day, sometimes for a week. The difference in how I look at it can be summed up in one word: awareness. What I mean by that is that I simply try to be aware of my emotions, look at my physical reactions to them, and acknowledge that I am reacting to an emotion. I try not to be controlled by my emotions like I used to be.
For example, you go home for Thanksgiving to visit family. Some in your family may have different political beliefs than you, and may try to argue with you on those beliefs. If you usual reaction is to leap to the defense of your own belief set, take a second and notice the visceral, physical reaction your body providing. Simply because someone is challenging your beliefs, your sympathetic nervous system is activating your fight-or-flight response, sending a cascade of stress hormones through your body that are triggering inflammation, down-regulating the immune system, and preparing the body for a fight. All of this, because your uncle said Bernie Sanders is a communist.
I used to live my entire life in this fight-or-flight mode. Many do. Reacting to stress in this way can be linked to many things that ail us, not just depression. When the sympathetic nervous system in constantly activated it puts us at risk for many chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease, anxiety, weight gain, and cognitive impairment
What we have to understand is that this response is a learned behavior. Specifically with depression, we learn helplessness. This has been shown in studies looking at both animals and humans. When exposed to stressful situations without control as children, we learn how to be helpless, and then apply that reaction whenever stress comes up. So first, we must acknowledge that our mind has taught us certain behaviors. What is amazing about the mind, is it’s ability to learn new behaviors.
My first encounter with the ability to quite the mind and feel what I was thinking, (the aforementioned physical response to emotions, good or bad) was in a yoga class. In yoga, much is said about being the “observer” of your mind. We are not our mind or our emotions. We actually function on a much higher level that has the ability to observe these thoughts and feelings. The thing about taking a hard yoga class, is that you sweat it our and work hard for an hour, then a chunk of time is reserved at the end for “shavasana”. This is basically just lying on your back and focusing on the breath, observing the breath. The first time I did this I was blown away by the fact that I was observing myself breathing, watching emotions come up, feeling the reactions to them. It was a respite from the constant barrage of self talk I had my entire life. That began a journey to figure out how to get to that state more often.
As this post is now going on 2000 words, I’ll cut to the chase and go through some things in my toolbox. What I have found to be most affective is controlling for three different variables. Nutrition, stress management, and exercise.
- Eat a low-inflammatory diet. For me, this means a ketogenic diet focusing on well sourced and raised meats, leafy greens, and healthy fats. However, simply cutting out inflammatory seed and vegetable oils, grains, and refined sugars would make an enormous difference in the inflammatory load of your diet. Less inflammation of the body and especially the gut will provide much-needed down time for your sympathetic nervous system.
- Eat probiotic rich foods like fermented dairy, pickled vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut, and fermented beverages like kombucha. Providing the gut with healthy bacteria ensures that the enteric nervous system lining your intestine actually functions correctly and makes the right hormones at the right time. A healthy gut is key for hormone management.
- Take time each day to do some mindfulness involved activities. This is anything that gets you out of your constant though patterns. I made a list a little while back. In short, mindfulness meditation is something I do without fail everyday. It trains me to notice and acknowledge emotions without judgement when they come up. This is key in recognizing creeping depressive tendencies. Notice them, acknowledge the feeling and any physical reaction you may be having, and move on. This simple act takes care of 95% of my own depressive though patterns.
- Limit phone usage. We have become addicted to the rush of feel good hormones we get when a social media post is liked, or a text is sent to us. Approval and happiness cannot come from the phone, it has to come from real life. Just as it can give us a rush of happiness, it can be taken away by a lack of approval or a nasty comment. Do yourself a favor and limit phone time with something like the grayscale coloring to discourage constant staring, or tracking apps that let you know how many times you open up social media in the day.
- Have a creative outlet. For me, that is performing/writing music and writing in this format. I find nothing gets me out of my own head like digging into a creative pursuit. Many people can attest to this.
- Have a support group. Even though looking at those emotions by yourself and acknowledging them is an important tool, expressing any complex thoughts or roadblocks your running into with someone else is as powerful a tool as looking at them by yourself.
- It doesn’t have to be exercise in the traditional sense. Studies show that simply walking 30 minutes three or more times a week greatly reduces depressive symptoms. This is absolutely true in my case. Luckily I dog, which forces the issue of walking everyday. We log in at least 30 minutes of walking everyday, with most days going up to an hour. This is crucial and healing time for me. We are blessed to live in the Catskill mountains of NY, so being in nature I feel adds to the benefits of walking. This is shown in studies on Japanese “forest bathing”. Basically walks in nature have massive beneficial effects on our mood and depression or anxiety symptoms.
- If you have more time or more fitness to fit in something other than a walk, good! all exercise is beneficial. Especially the kind where you are really pushing yourself. A study on cyclists putting out near max effort showed a large increase in activity of the endocannabinoid system. This system is responsible for the Brain Neutropic Factor, which is basically an endogenous source of feel good hormones.
Long story short, even though I am a “health coach”, I’ve been there with depression. No one has it completely figured out. No one has a magic pill that will the problem forever. The best we can do is try to optimize every practice to result in satisfaction of our life. Let me know down below of any questions and comments. Thanks for reading along everyone.
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