Unfortunately, that cliche depression advice actually works
Unfortunately, the cliche depression advice actually works

Unfortunately, that cliche depression advice actually works

Depression sucks. Let me open with that. I’ve suffered with it off and on for most of my adult life, and even with medication, some weeks are better than others. Depression can make us exhausted, bored, and alone, and when it gets to the point where enough is enough, if you’re anything like me, you probably Google something like “Depression Advice,” only to be hit with the same tired listicles that recommend sunlight, exercise, vegetables, and socializing.

That’s great for those people, but your depression is intense. The very idea of taking a walk right now sounds exhausting, and when you come back inside you feel gross, and you already kind of feel gross because you haven’t showered in a week. Good news and bad news: it will help you, too.

If that depression advice works, then why do antidepressants exist?

The simple answer is that we don’t know, but we think antidepressants make it easier for you to start doing things to take care of yourself, which, in turn, makes you less depressed.

Antidepressants “inhibit the reuptake of serotonin in the brain,” which means it keeps those feel-good neurotransmitters more available for use. Upon learning this several years ago, I thought, “I have a low amount of serotonin in my brain, therefore I’m depressed.” And this is what most professionals believed, too.

However, in 2022, a review was published that suggests that there may be no link between serotonin levels and depression at all. But if that’s the case, why do we still use antidepressants? And why do many of us feel better on them?

One idea that many professionals subscribe to is that medication is most useful as a tool. Maybe we don’t know why SSRI antidepressants work, but feeling a little better might give you the energy to prepare a balanced lunch, take a shower, and maybe go on that highly-touted walk. As you learn to build these things into your routine, you stop thinking so much about them, and they feel less effortful. Ideally, you won’t be on those antidepressants forever.

But how can a walk cure my depression?

A walk alone can’t “cure” your depression, but a combination of healthy habits can definitely make you feel much better. And there are studied reasons why each piece of cliche depression advice works. Let’s take a look at each of the most common pieces of advice and see how it can play a role in improving your mental health:

Get some sunlight

If you’ve heard of SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, then you may already know that sunlight has an effect on mood. The interesting thing is that a recent study from 2021 shows that in order to increase mood and positively affect depression, you actually need to be getting sunlight on a regular basis over the course of a longer period of time (like 30 days). In fact, just sitting out in the sun when you don’t feel great can have negative impacts on your sleep cycle if you don’t normally spend time outside. If you’re a person who feels like sunlight just doesn’t work for you, I would highly recommend trying to get 10 minutes a day for 30 days and see if it makes you feel better. Just please wear some sunscreen!

Take a walk / Work out more often

Research also shows that exercise has a huge effect on depression. In fact, in one study comparing groups of depressed women, one group was put on an exercise regimen. The other two were put in a social support group or a waitlist. The exercise group reported more than double the amount of depression relief compared to the social support group, and six times as much as the control. 

There are several reasons why exercise works so well:

  1. Growth factors: Low-intensity exercise over time can spur the release of proteins called growth factors. These cause nerve cell growth and improve brain function overall.
  2. Stress, trauma, and shock, as well as emotions like sadness, can get “trapped” in the body. That might sound a little woo-woo, but does your body tense up when you feel something intensely? Does your jaw clench when you’re anxious? Movement can help release those tense feelings. The therapeutic model is called Somatic Experiencing if you’re interested. But any movement, especially intense movement, will help those tense feelings, too.
  3. Working out gives us an opportunity to process our emotions. I’ve written about this at length in the past, but the short version is that you need mentally quiet time to reflect on your experiences and feel the feelings associated with them in order to move past them. Working out is a great opportunity to do that.

And if the idea of exercise makes you exhausted to think about, don’t worry. Fitness experts tend to agree that little movement tasks throughout the day actually do more work for you when it comes to movement than dedicated moderate exercise. Plus, doing more chores has the added benefit of keeping your surroundings a little less chaotic, which can help too.

Eat a balanced diet

This was the big one for me, and probably the most common piece of depression advice overall. With my combo of depression and ADHD, preparing healthy meals is like climbing a mountain. This advice never felt like it would work for me because there was no real explanation for why eating vegetables would make me feel better mentally. The most likely explanation in my mind was that healthy people can do that because they don’t have depression.

Interestingly, there is a link, and eating a balanced, nutritionally varied diet will help reduce symptoms of depression. Scientists recently found that the gut microbiome of those with depression looked pretty different to those without depression. There is a connection between your gut microbiome and your memory, mood, and cognitive skills. Eating a balanced diet can help feed the “good” bacteria, which, in turn, will help the fog lift.

How am I supposed to follow all this depression advice?

It’s hard to find out the solution to your pain is something really tedious, annoying, and hard. It can feel hopeless. The good news is two-fold: medication can still get you halfway there, and you won’t feel hopeless forever.

Maybe you’ve felt this before, or maybe you’re feeling it now. You’re tired of feeling awful and you want to do something about it. That tiny feeling is your motivation coming back. For me, one of the first signs of depression coming and going is my motivation coming and going. When I notice that little spark, even if it’s just the urge to play a video game or message my friends, it tells me I’m starting to come back, and just knowing that can jumpstart the rest of it.

If you’ve been in a depression for years with no sight of the end, you can still do this, but you have to start small. What is possible today that will make future you feel one percent, or even half of a percent, better? If a shower is too much, maybe washing your face and changing your clothes will help.

If you can do something that will make future-you’s life better by 0.5% every day, you’re already feeling your way out of the tunnel. As you find more energy, start incorporating more things, and do them as often as you can. Go for a walk, shower, eat some fruits and vegetables, and talk to someone.

There is help available

If the very idea of thinking of ways to feel better is exhausting, I would highly recommend speaking with a trained professional. A therapist can help you brainstorm, encourage you, and be your cheerleader and sounding board when you feel alone. At Modern Era Counseling, our therapists are experts at helping clients face their depression head-on and move through it. If you’d like to learn more, give us a call at (704) 800-4436 or shoot us an email today.

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