Self-Care for Depression 2

Everyone gets the blues from time to time. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, major depressive disorder (also known as depression) affects 7 percent of adult Americans every year, and chronic, mild depression affects 2 percent.

The good news is you may not have to turn to drugs to combat the blues. Of course, if bouts of depression continue for weeks at a time, you need to see a health-care professional and work out a treatment plan. But for occasional down days, adopting some simple lifestyle and diet changes and making them part of your daily routine can naturally boost your mood.

 A regular dose of exercise may be just what you need to ease the first signs of depression or anxiety. A study by a team of researchers including Michael Babyak, professor of medical psychology at the Duke University Medical Center, showed that engaging in mild aerobic exercise three times a week was as effective as undergoing a standard treatment with antidepressant medications. While researchers aren’t sure why exercise helps, some speculate being active may affect brain chemicals or improve blood flow to the brain. Babyak says you don’t necessarily have to do extremely vigorous activity — even fast walking (try for 30 minutes at least three times a week) may help improve your mood.

The foods you choose can also affect your mood. “Low levels or actual deficiency of such nutrients as omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, selenium, chromium, vitamin D, and the B vitamins folic acid and B12 are all associated with human depressive symptoms,” says Alan C. Logan, naturopathic physician and author of The Brain Diet (Cumberland House, 2007). However, Ronald Pies, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, adds that there’s no solid evidence to date that specific foods or nutrients can boost a person’s mood under normal circumstances. The key, he notes, is moderation. “A nutritious, well-balanced diet is very important for maintaining a normal mood.”

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, fish oils, and flaxseed, are being studied for their mood-boosting properties. Specifically, research suggests that eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an omega-3 found in oily fish, may be especially effective against depression. Though the jury is still out on all of the potential benefits of omega-3s, many experts say it’s worth giving them a try. “Consider adding more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, if not to boost mood, then to improve your overall cardiovascular fitness,” says Ronald Pies, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse. “This can be easily done by increasing your dietary consumption of certain fish, such as salmon or herring.” You can also get fish oil in supplement form.

When your body relaxes, it can help you see the world from a rosier perspective. One way to achieve effective relaxation is through the increasingly popular practice of yoga. Studies by India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences have shown that certain yoga-linked breathing exercises can lower levels of cortisol, an adrenal hormone linked to stress. Another study found that immediately after a one-hour session, yoga practitioners had a healthy boost in levels of the mood-related neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Low brain levels of GABA have been associated with anxiety and depression. Yoga has many other health benefits as well.

Some people report that taking the herbal supplement St. John’s wort helps their depressive symptoms, while others find no benefit. Naturopathic physician and author Alan C. Logan says research has shown that it’s worth trying St. John’s wort if you have mild to moderate depression. He warns, however, that this herb shouldn’t be used if you’re already taking antidepressant medications. In addition, St. John’s wort can interact with many other prescription drugs, such as birth control pills, making them less effective. As a general rule, it’s always advisable to consult a health-care practitioner before using any nutritional supplement.

Getting your feelings out, be it in a letter or journal entry, or through creative writing, can provide insight into your feelings and give you perspective on how to let go of destructive emotions. James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas, says that although research about the value of expressive writing is still preliminary, regularly recording your emotional upheavals can improve both your physical and mental health. He recommends a writing session that lasts for a minimum of 15 minutes a day, on paper or the computer, for at least three or four consecutive days. Try to write continuously without worrying about spelling or grammar.

Research shows that a lack of sunlight during the dark winter months can cause a verifiable condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or the winter blues. Alan C. Logan, naturopathic physician and author, says that even adults who don’t have SAD often report a decline in mood during this time. Greater exposure to natural sunlight can help combat this problem, as can the regular use of a full-spectrum light box. “The value of a light box has also been demonstrated even in healthy adults without SAD,” says Logan. Using the light box early in the morning (7 a.m. or earlier) may be most effective, he adds.

A massage by a skilled practitioner is not only rejuvenating for your muscles, it can also be a great stress and anxiety buster. A 2005 review of many research studies showed that massage therapy consistently lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol in patients with various physical and psychological conditions. At the same time, it increased the activity of pleasure-related chemicals in the brain. Even if it’s not for therapeutic purposes, a massage can be enjoyable and decrease muscle and mental tension.

Trying to think positively, even during down times, can also affect your mood. Start by making a list of all the things in your life that you appreciate — the results may surprise you. Alan C. Logan, naturopathic physician and author, adds that being mindful (staying in the moment) can also help. He suggests you can do this by paying attention to your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. “Taking stock of these mental events in a nonjudgmental way allows for the identification of negative patterns that can lead to depressive symptoms,” he says. “Research suggests that mindfulness may lead to resilience against stress and positively alter brain activity in the areas governing emotions.”

Though your tendency may be to avoid people when you’re feeling down, often this can just add to feelings of isolation and depression. Reaching out to people, whether you discuss how you’re feeling or not, can help. Studies show that positive social ties can significantly protect a person’s health and well-being. So try to strengthen your relationships with people around you: Propose social dates, keep in touch with friends, explore volunteer opportunities, or take a new class. If your depression makes it too difficult to do these things, you should begin by reaching out to a doctor or therapist for some help.

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Self-Care for Depression

As a clinical psychologist, Mary Pipher, PhD, designed “healing packages” for her patients: activities, resources, and comforts to help them recover from trauma. Then, after Dr. Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia became a runaway best-seller, she herself suffered from an episode of major depression and designed a healing package of her own. “The essence of my personal healing package,” she describes in her book Seeking Peace, “was to keep my life as simple and quiet as possible and to allow myself sensual and small pleasures.” She created a mini-retreat center in her home and modified the ancient ways of calming troubled nerves to fit her lifestyle. Pipher’s healing package looked like this:

She accessed the healing power of water by walking at Holmes Lake Dam, swimming at the university’s indoor pool, and reading The New Yorker magazine in the bathtub every morning.

She cooked familiar foods, dishes that reminded her of home: jaternice, sweetbreads, and perch; and cornbread and pinto beans with ham hocks.

She unpacked her childhood teacup collection and displayed it near her computer desk to remind her of happy times and of people who loved her.

She reconnected with the natural world by walking many miles every week on the frozen prairie, watching the yellow aconites blossom in February and the daffodils and jonquils in March, following the cycles of the moon, and witnessing sunrises and sunsets.

She read biographies of heroes like Abe Lincoln, and read the poetry of Billy Collins, Robert Frost, Mary Oliver, and Ted Kooser.

She found role models for coping with adversity.

She limited her encounters with people and gave herself permission to skip holiday gatherings and postpone social obligations. She erased calendar engagements until she had three months of “white space” in her future.

She embraced her body through yoga and massage. She started to pay attention to tension in her neck and other cues from her body and let those signals teach her about herself.

She meditated every day.

These activities were exactly what she needed to emerge from the other side of depression. She writes:

“After taking care of my body for several months, it began to take good care of me. My blood pressure improved and my heart problems disappeared. After a few months of my simple, relatively stress-free life and my healing package of activities, I felt my depression lifting. I enjoyed the return of positive emotions: contentment, joy, calmness and new sparks of curiosity and energy. I again felt a great tenderness toward others.”

Psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, discusses similar healing packages in his best-selling book Unstuck. At the end of his first meetings with all of his patients, he will write out a “prescription of self-care,” which includes instructions on changing diet, advice about specific recommended meditations or exercises, and a list of supplements and herbs. “Among my recommendations, there are always actions, techniques, approaches, and attitudes that each person has told me — which she already knows — are helpful,” he explains. At the end of his introduction, he suggests each reader take some time to write out his or her own prescription. He supplies a form and everything.

Each person’s healing package is unique. Many people have benefited from more meditation and mindfulness exercises, psychotherapy sessions, and therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) that help unclog the brain of painful memories. Some people do better with more physical exercise and nutritional changes. While mindfulness and meditation have certainly helped many become aware of my rumination patterns, the most profound changes in others recovery have come from the bags of dark, green leafy vegetables, yoga, and breathing exercises.

It’s empowering to know that we don’t need a doctor or any mental health professional to design a healing package for us. We are perfectly capable of writing this prescription ourselves. Sometimes (not always), all it takes are a few simple tweaks to our lifestyle over a period to pull us out of a crippling depression or unrelenting anxiety.

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Anxiety Handout

We all know the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety. Our hearts race, our fingers sweat, and our breathing gets shallow and labored. We experience racing thoughts about a perceived threat we fear will be too much to handle. That’s because our “fight or flight” response has kicked in, resulting in sympathetic arousal and a narrowing of attention and focus on avoiding the threat. We seem to be locked in that state, unable to focus on our daily chores or longer-term goals. Below are six strategies that you can use to help relieve your everyday anxiety:

  • Reevaluate the probability of the threatening event actually happening.

Anxiety makes us feel that a threat is imminent, yet most of the time what we worry most about never happens. By recording our worries—and how few actually came true—we can notice how much we overestimate the prospect of negative events.

  • De-catastrophize.

Even if a bad event happened, we may still be able to handle it by using  coping skills and problem-solving abilities or by enlisting others to help. Although not pleasant, we could still survive encountering a spider, having a panic attack, or losing money. It’s important to realize that very few things are the end of the world.

  • Use deep breathing and relaxation.

By deliberately relaxing our muscles we begin to calm down so we can think clearly. If you practice this at first without a threat present, it can start to become automatic and will be easier to use in the moment when you face a threat. Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system to put the brakes on sympathetic arousal.

  • Become mindful of your own physical and mental reactions.

The skill of mindfulness involves calmly observing our own reactions, including fear, without panic or feeling compelled to act. It can be taught in therapy and improves with practice.

  • Accept fear and commit to living a life based on core values.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an approach that encourages people to accept the inevitability of negative thoughts and feelings and not try to repress or control them. By directing attention away from the fear and back onto life tasks and valued goals, we can live a full life despite the fear.

  • Exposure.

Exposure is the most powerful technique for anxiety and it involves facing what we fear and staying in the situation long enough for the fear to habituate or go down, as it naturally does. Fear makes us avoid or run away, so our minds and bodies never learn that much of what we fear is not truly dangerous.

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Anger Handout

Once a week I facilitated an anger management group. I used a variety of handouts and activities to have a process oriented group interaction. One of the handouts I use is below. I use it in 1 of 2 ways. I have folks fill it out first and then we discuss or we go through it together and discuss. We explore as a group, learning from each other.


anger disgust grumpiness rage  aggravation dislike hate resentment  agitation envy hostility revulsion  annoyance exasperation irritation scorn  bitterness ferocity jealousy spite  contempt frustration loathing torment  cruelty fury mean-spiritedness vengefulness  destructiveness grouchiness outrage wrath


Prompting Events for Feeling Anger

Losing power.

Losing status.

Losing respect.

Being insulted.

Not having things turn out the way you expected.

Experiencing physical pain.

Experiencing emotional pain.

Being threatened with physical or emotional pain by someone or something.

Having an important or pleasurable activity interrupted, postponed, or stopped.

Not obtaining something you want (which another person has).


Interpretations That Prompt Feelings of Anger

Expecting pain.

Feeling that you have been treated unfairly.

Believing that things should be different.

Rigidly thinking “I’m right.”

Judging that the situation is illegitimate, wrong, or unfair.

Ruminating about the event that set off the anger in the first place, or in the past.


Experiencing the Emotion of Anger

Feeling incoherent.

Feeling out of control.

Feeling extremely emotional.

Feeling tightness or rigidity in your body.

Feeling your face flush or get hot.

Feeling nervous tension, anxiety or discomfort.

Feeling like you are going to explode.

Muscles tightening. .

Teeth clamping together, mouth tightening.

Crying; being unable to stop tears.

Wanting to hit, bang the wall, throw something, blow up.


Expressing and Acting on Anger

Frowning or not smiling; mean or unpleasant facial expression.

Gritting or showing your teeth in an unfriendly manner.


A red or flushed face.

Verbally attacking the cause of your anger; criticizing.

Physically attacking the cause of your anger.

Using obscenities or cursing.

U sing a loud voice, yelling, screaming, or shouting.

Complaining or bitching; talking about how lousy things are.

Clenching your hands or fists.

Making aggressive or threatening gestures.

Pounding on something, throwing things, breaking things.

Walking heavily or stomping; slamming doors, walking out.

Brooding or withdrawing from contract with others.


After effects of Anger

Narrowing of attention.

Attending only to the situation making you angry.

Ruminating about the situation making you angry and not being able to think of anything else.

Remembering and ruminating about other situations that have made you angry in the past.

Imagining future situations that will make you angry.

Depersonalization, dissociative experience, numbness.

Intense shame, fear, or other negative emotions.


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