If you or someone you love is struggling with depression, it is helpful to become aware of triggers that can deepen their depression and what you can do to help. Here are six areas where you can take positive steps to avoid exacerbating and even help to alleviate the symptoms of depression.
#1. Decrease Stress.
Excessive stress spikes the hormone cortisol, which increases arousal and irritability. There are a number of steps you can take to decrease stress: Here are just a few:
Avoid the tendency to bite off more than you can comfortably chew. When you’re overwhelmed, even fun things lose their appeal and become stressors.
When asked to take on a new responsibility, learn to pause before saying “yes.” Give yourself time to think over whether you really have the time and energy to take on the new task. If not, say “no”.
Avoid feelings of overwhelm by dividing projects into realistically do-able parts and set realistic goals for how much can reasonably be achieved in a day.
Don’t try to do it all yourself. Look for opportunities to delegate to others.
#2. Improve “Sleep Hygiene”.
The link between depression and sleep problems works both ways. People with depression tend to have disrupted sleep. And people with insomnia are more susceptible to depression. Too little or too much sleep can aggravate depressive symptoms.
The term ssion“sleep hygiene” refers to a series of healthy sleep habits that can improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Here are a few tips to improve your sleep hygiene:
Consistency is key. Go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day.
Consider using a sleep tracker app or keep a sleep diary to help support your best intentions for keeping to a consistent sleep schedule.
If you take naps, limit their length to about 30 minutes so that you don’t sabotage your important nighttime slumber.
Adjust your sleeping environment so that it is dark, cool, and quiet.
If you find it difficult to sleep in absolute silence, try a white noise machine or app on your cell phone.
Use your bed only for sleep and sex, nothing else.
Avoid all electronics 1 full hour before bed, including television, computers, phones, e-readers, and tablets.
If you must use your computer or tablet close to bedtime, use a red screen filter to counteract the blue light those screens emit. Your brain interprets the blue light as bright daylight and signals you to stay awake.
Adopt a bedtime routine. Incorporate regular “wind down” activities such as reading a relaxing book, taking a warm bath, or doing a brief progressive body relation exercise in bed.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol several hours before bedtime as they both disrupt sleep. Of course we know that caffeine perks us up, but why alcohol? Alcohol may make you drowsy, but it disrupts sleep during the night and prevents you from getting essential amounts of REM and deep sleep.
To promote sleep, avoid these foods at dinner time and later: coffee, tea, chocolate, alcohol, spicy foods, fatty foods, sugary dessert, and junk foods.
Think about the timing of when you eat as well. When your digestive system is in full swing, it’s difficult for the rest of your body to settle down. To sleep better at night, have dinner two to four hours before bedtime.
Try a light pre-bedtime snack that contains foods rich in tryptophan, carbohydrates, calcium, magnesium, melatonin and vitamin B6, all of which can promote quality sleep. Some foods that contain those helpful substances include milk, cheese, eggs, nuts, fish, beans, yogurt, kale and leafy greens, cherries, walnuts, bananas, oats, and tomatoes.
And while we’re on the topic of food intake, also try to decrease the amount of liquids you drink close to bedtime to avoid being awakened for the necessary trips to the bathroom.
#3. Choose Your Diet Carefully.
Researchers have discovered that a depressed brain is an inflamed brain. Since your food choices can increase or decrease inflammation, it is wise to carefully select what you choose to include in and exclude from your diet.
For instance, sugar and simple carbohydrates are highly inflammatory and should be minimized or eliminated from your diet. Sugars and carbs also can spike glucose levels and affect mood.
On the other hand, colorful fruits and vegetables contain natural antioxidants. These protect the body’s omega-3s, which fight depression.Omega-3s are key building blocks for our brain tissue and can only be derived from our diets. While they can be found in wild game and seafood, most Americans have an Omega-3 deficiency which leaves them vulnerable to depression.
Ask your doctor about taking a fish oil supplement, usually 1000 mg of EPA daily. And while you’re at it, ask your doctor about taking a Vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D also is essential for brain health and, again, most Americans are deficient.
#4. Surround Yourself with Supportive People.
When you are depressed, there is a tenancy to isolate from others. That is the opposite of what should be done. Research has shown that contact with supportive others can be very helpful. Why is this so?
Research has revealed that the brain contains “mirror neurons” which cause us to mirror the moods of people around us. In a sense, moods are contagious! For that reason, it is wise to surround yourself with upbeat, optimistic people that will trigger your brain’s positive emotion circuits.
Conversely, those mirror neurons can also pick up the negative emotions and moods of others. Try to stay away from negative people, especially those who don’t understand the seriousness of depression and how it affects your life.
#5. Go on a News and Social Media “Diet”.
Upsetting and disturbing news stories can exacerbate depression. While you may want to keep abreast of important local and world news, avoid constant exposure to the never-ending stream of disturbing news you will hear in repetitive and overly dramatized news reports. Select a news medium that you trust and ration your news intake to a level you are comfortable with. Watch for and learn your own signs that you’ve absorbed enough bad information.
It is also wise to reduce your use of social media. Excessive use of social media, especially in teens, has been linked to depression and even suicide. It is thought that social media creates FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). The tendency towards constant social comparison engendered by social media apps creates social insecurity that is detrimental to mental health.
#6. Get some exercise.
Moderate exercise boosts mood-elevating dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Brisk walks and other forms of moderate exercise have been shown to be at least as effective as antidepressant drugs in reducing depression. For relief from depressive symptoms, try at last 40 minutes of aerobic activity at least three times a week.
Outdoor exercise is especially helpful since sunlight is a natural mood lifter. Like exercise, it triggers serotonin production, which increases feelings of well-being. It also resets our body clock and promotes a stable circadian rhythm that is essential for healthful sleep.
If sufficient exposure to natural sunlight out of doors is not possible, consider using an artificial light box. Just 30 minutes per day can help elevate mood.
In closing, while there are many steps you or your loved one who is struggling with depression can take to help alleviate its symptoms, remember that depression should not be taken lightly. It can be a life-threatening illness. Don’t go it alone. It is best to seek the guidance of a therapist or medical doctor to develop your own customized treatment plan. If you would like to explore getting some professional support, please feel free to set up a free 30-minute consultation with me.