Category Archives: Depression

6 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve Your Mental Health

Thinking about improving our mental health can feel overwhelming–especially when we’re under the influence of negative emotions such as anger, sadness or anxiety.  However, there are a few simple things that you can do in the moment that can help…and, if you practice these things on a regular basis, you may see an improvement in your overall well-being.  So, what are they?

1.  Stop and Breathe

As humans, we are under a lot of stress.  Our stress levels encourage us to be ‘shallow’ breathers–instead of taking deep breaths; we take short,  shallow breaths.  If we pay attention, we may notice that most of our inhales barely make it past our collar bone!    This way of breathing encourages panicky feelings as we’re not getting enough oxygen to our brains–it’s as if we’re hyperventilating.   If that’s our normal, how should we breathe?

Have you ever watched a baby breathe?  They  naturally ‘tummy’ breathe…slow, deep, relaxed breaths.  Tummy breathing helps to calm the nervous system, which puts the breaks on the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.  You can practice this type of breathing by gently placing your hands on your stomach and inhaling until you feel your tummy rise and fall.

If you are interested in practicing your breathing as a way to cope with difficult emotions, a meditation/breathing download is available on the Welcome Page of Blaikie Psychotherapy.  The exercise takes 20 minutes and includes instructions.

2.  Eat Something Healthy

Are you familiar with the ‘hang over’ from a greasy, high-fat, calorie-dense meal?  I know that I am!  If I have made a stop at my local fast-food palace as a way to cope with negative feelings, I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t feel better afterwards.

Our brains and bodies are connected.  There is now a branch of science called Nutritional Psychiatry that looks at the effects of food on our mental health.  Scientists are recognizing the interplay between mental health and a healthy gut (the microbiome).  When we provide our bodies with healthy nutrients, we are encouraging brain health.  This article from the Harvard Medical School explains how eating a diet high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants helps to increase serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain.

So, if you’re feeling down, grab an apple instead of a doughnut!

3.  Move

We have known for a long time that exercise is a good way to improve our mood.  There’s nothing like a good stomp around the block after an argument!

The great thing is that it doesn’t have to be a big deal…just 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week will provide benefits.  While 150 minutes may sound like a lot, it’s only a 20 minute walk per day.  And the 20 minutes can be spread out over the day…park the car a bit farther from where you’re going…take the stairs when possible…hit replay on your favourite tune and keep dancing.  When we’re mindful of ways to increase our amount of movement, it’s easy to find 20 minutes.

4.  Enjoy Nature

Not only can we add 20 minutes of movement into our day, we can do it outside.  While spending time in a forest or at a lake is ideal, the benefit is in getting outside.  Is there a park or other green space in your area?  What about your backyard?

A recent trend called “Forest Bathing” encourages us to benefit from the healing properties of trees.    According to a CTV News article,  the forest bathing movement is all about immersing oneself in the healing properties of trees and plants.  It involves simply walking — quietly, slowly and deliberately — in a forest, and taking in the sounds, scents, colours, forms and general vibe of nature.

The concept is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere.”  The certified forest therapy guide quoted in the article stated that “studies in Japan and Korea found forest bathers after their walks had an increased number of “natural killer cells,” immune system cells that combat disease and may even help prevent some kinds of cancer. The researchers believe natural killer cells are boosted when people breathe in organic compounds called phytoncides released by trees.”  Apparently, forest bathing helps to lower cortisol levels, thereby lowering your stress levels.

If you’re curious about nature therapy or forest bathing, you can read more about it here.

4.  Count

We’ve all heard the advice about counting to 10 before losing our temper, and for a good reason as it often works.  However, sometimes we need more than that.

When we get overwhelmed by big emotions like anxiety or anger, our limbic system (or lizard/emotional brain) is over-stimulated.  This means that the logic part of our brain (pre-frontal cortex) is not in charge.  By counting, which is a ‘thinking’ activity, we put that part of our brain back in the driver’s seat, and we stop the flooding of emotions.  While counting our breaths may help, it can be more helpful to count something that is external to us.

One suggestion that I often give to clients is, when needed, look at what is around and find something to count.  In a meeting room?…count the number of pens or paperclips on the table.  In a store?…How many items are on the rack or shelf in front of you.  At home?…Count the number of books on a shelf, spots on the carpet, dust bunnies on the floor.  Outside?  Count trees or cars.  We can always find something to count.

6.  Talk to Someone

One of the signs of depression is self-imposed social isolation.  We don’t feel like interacting with other people, so we don’t.  The more we keep to ourselves, the deeper we fall into our negative thoughts and the less we want to spend time with others….and the pattern repeats.  I’m not talking about the bigger problem of a chronic lack of friends, but the turning away for others.

Social interaction is important for our mental health.  We are social creatures and need contact with others.  So make a point of talking to at least one person during your day…maybe it’s the person who makes your coffee or tea…smiling at someone who crosses your path…asking a co-worker about their plans for the weekend.  It doesn’t have to be deep, just a sharing of humanity.

This post provides 6 simple ways to improve your mental health.  However, if you are dealing with a significant mental health challenge, these may not be enough.  If you would like to get in touch to talk more about what you are experiencing, you can reach me through my contact page.

And now, since humour is also good for mental health.  Here is some classic Monty Python.  Enjoy!

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Are You In a State of Lykke?

Libraries are magical places.  Unlike looking for books on Amazon or Chapters.com where you are presented with book selections based on previous choices; wandering around a library allows you to stumble upon all sorts of interesting things that you had no idea existed.  And, if you have a library card, it’s all free!  Such was the case the other day when I stumbled upon the little gem entitled The Little Book of Lykke by Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

What is Lykke?

Lykke is the Danish word for happiness.  According to Wiking’s research (based on the combined average of World Happiness Reports 2013-2017) Dane’s are the happiest people on the planet…followed by Swedes and Norwegians to round out the top three.

Wiking suggests that the reason for Denmark’s high happiness rating is due to community norms around togetherness, freedom, trust, and kindness; as well as those around money and health.  If you are interested in learning the details of Wiking’s theory, I recommend his book as an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.

A Definition of Happiness

As discussed in last week’s post on balance, the definition of happiness is also individual.  What makes me happy, may be misery to my neighbour.  That being said, Wiking provides a helpful framework to look at happiness.  He suggests that happiness can be divided into three categories:  the affective dimension, the cognitive dimension and eudaimonia.

When we are operating in the affective (or hedonic) dimension we’re thinking short-term.  What was our mood today?  Sad, scared, anxious, happy?  In the cognitive dimension we take a step back and look at our live overall.  Wiking asks:

“How happy are you in general?  Think of the best possible life you could lead, and the worst possible.  Where do you feel you stand right now?”  “When trying to evaluate happiness, the important information is what your dream is and how close you feel to living that dream.”

The concept of eudaimonia takes happiness one step further.  Eudaimonia is the Ancient Greek work for happiness and is based on Aristotle‘s perception of happiness–i.e. happiness comes from living a meaningful and purposeful life.  If you’d like to read more about the ‘meaning of life’ you can check out this previous post.

Chasing Happiness

I think that it’s safe to assume that we all want to be happy.  In fact, it’s often a motivating factor in why we behave the way we do.  In some cases, we even go so far as to believe that we have a right to be happy.  In at least one country, the right to happiness is codified in their founding documents.    The United States Declaration of Independence  gives citizens the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

As with most things that we want very badly, we are seldom content to let them come to us–instead we chase them.  Advertisers know this.  Consumerism is based on the idea that we will buy things that we think will make us more popular, thinner, fitter, smarter…ultimately happier.

Not only do we chase happiness, but in today’s world of ‘fitbits’ and other ways of constant monitoring, there are ‘happiness apps’ that use results of research into brain science and happiness to give users daily exercises that will help to improve their overall state of happiness.  If you’re interested, you can check out Psychology Today’s review of the Best Happiness Apps of 2018.

Unicorns

What if happiness is like a unicorn?  In fairy tales, we learn that if we are looking for a unicorn we’ll fail if we chase them directly. Instead, we need to sit quietly and wait.  She will come to us, and not usually full-on, but  glimpsed out of the corner of our eye.

I like the idea of happiness being somewhat mystical–like unicorns.  It comes when we’re not looking for her.  We can put things in place to encourage her to visit, but we can’t force her to come…or stay forever.

If we measure happiness from the affective standard, it’s easy to look at happiness as something to grasp and get attached to. This can only lead to disappointment.  However, if we think of the long game, happiness over time, we can relax and not get so caught up in our ‘internal weather’.

Happiness and Depression

There is a time when we do need to be aware of our daily happiness–if we suspect that we may be suffering with depression.  One of the symptoms of depression is the absence of happiness or no longer finding joy in activities that used to fulfill us.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • sadness
  • tiredness
  • trouble focusing or concentrating
  • unhappiness
  • anger
  • irritability
  • frustration
  • loss of interest in pleasurable or fun activities
  • sleep issues (too much or too little)
  • no energy
  • craving unhealthy foods
  • anxiety
  • isolation.

If you have been experiencing any of the these symptoms for more than a few weeks, you may be dealing with depression, and need to seek medical support.

Happiness…individual, illusive and part of what makes life worthwhile.  May she find you!

And now what is happier than a baby goat and kittens?  Enjoy!

 

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Depression Comes in Many Types… Meet Dysthymia

When my children was between the ages of 4 to 7, dinosaurs were of huge interest.  They were fascinated by all things prehistoric.  Not only could they identify many of these creatures (T-Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus…), they could tell you all about them.  Who knew there were so many types of dinosaurs?

We can think of depression in the same way.  Just like “dinosaurs” is a major category including many types, “depression” is a major category.  Some types of depression that you may already be aware of:  major depression, bipolar depression (also known as manic depression), seasonal affective disorder (SAD), postpartum depression, psychotic depression…  Who knew there were so many types of depression?  What about dysthymia?

Dysthymia

Dysthymia (also known as Persistent Depressive Disorder or PDD) affects up to 6% of the general population with women being three times more likely to be diagnosed than men (US stats according to Health Research Funding.org ).

This ‘dinosaur’ is characterized by a mild depression that lasts at least two years.  The symptoms are less severe than major depression, but are longer lasting or chronic.  Thankfully, the more severe symptoms that mark major depression—including anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), psychomotor symptoms (particularly lethargy or agitation), and thoughts of death or suicide—are often absent in PDD.

Unlike other types of depression, dysthymia often goes under the radar because people are able to function.

Meet Agnes…

Agnes (a 30 year old woman) hasn’t felt ‘happy’ for a long time.  Even though she gets plenty of sleep (maybe too much, she wonders), she doesn’t have any energy.  At work, she has difficulty concentrating.  At home, Agnes can’t make decisions about simple things.  Unable to decide about what to have for dinner…most nights she stands in front of the fridge eating whatever comes to hand.  Healthy eating has become a thing of the past.  When Agnes thinks back over the past few years, she can describe a few weeks when the ‘fog’ lifted, but it always returns.  While Agnes is able to get through her days, she is starting to feel hopeless…that she will feel this way forever.

On the advice of a friend, Agnes recently talked to her doctor who, based on her symptoms, suggested that she may be suffering from dysthymia.

Am I at Risk?

If 6% of the population may suffer from dysthymia during their life time, am I at risk?  Let’s look at the five main risk factors:

  • A first degree relative (parents or sibling) has been diagnosed with depression,
  • You have recently experienced a traumatic or stressful life event,
  • Negative personality traits (e.g. low self-esteem, self-critical or pessimistic),
  • Personal history of other mental health disorders (e.g. antisocial, borderline, obsessive compulsive),
  • Being isolated or having a lack of social connections.

Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean that you will develop dysthymia, but it does mean that you may want to take care of yourself.  But how?

The Power of Self-Care and Awareness

Working with clients who are learning to cope with any form of depression, one of the first things we do is talk about self-care.  When we take care of ourselves, we are healing current conditions and preventing future ones.  So what can we do?

  • Control stress:  Exercise, meditate, do an activity that you enjoy.
  • Reach out for support:  As people become more cut-off from each other, incidents of loneliness are increasing.  Think about developing your own support system.
  • Get help at the first sign of dysthymia:  Talk to your doctor or a therapist before your symptoms become chronic.
  • If you have already experienced and overcome dysthymia, consider long-term maintenance treatment to prevent a relapse.
Treatments

If you are currently suffering with dysthymia, there are two main areas of treatment:  prescription medication (SSRI’s such as Prozac, Paxil or Zoloft) and psychotherapy–specifically Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that helps to change negative ways of thinking.

Dysthymia, or any other form of depression, doesn’t have to be a life-sentence.  There are things that you can do.

And now…I wonder if this well-known character suffers from dysthymia?  Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

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It’s the Middle of February…Are We Having Fun Yet?

A colleague greeted me today with the announcement, “I’m so done with winter.”  I think that many of us would agree…the recent snow, fluctuations in temperature that bring the gift of freezing rain, clearing the driveway yet again.  A local newscaster announced yesterday that there is a shortage of sidewalk de-icer!

Seasonal Affective Disorder

All fun aside, some people need spring, and the longer hours of daylight, for bigger reasons than to get a break from the cold and dark.  These are people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

SAD is a type of depression that is related to the change of season.  It is experienced by individuals who are not usually depressed at other times of the year.  It often begins, and ends, at the same time every year.  While most people who suffer from SAD do so in the winter, some may do so in the summer instead.

How Do I Know If I Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

There are a variety of symptoms that people coping with SAD are dealing with.  These include:

  • Low energy
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
What Causes SAD?

While there are no known clear-cut causes, we do have some ideas of what may bring on SAD.

  • Your biological clock (circadian rhythm).The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels.A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
  • Melatonin levels.The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
What Can I Do?

There are many ways that you can cope with SAD symptoms.   Depending on the severity of your symptoms, some or all may help.

Increase Your Exercise
While it’s easy to hunker down during the winter, especially when feeling depressed, increasing your level of exercise has been shown to improve negative effects of SAD. Exercise releases endorphins (the ‘feel good’)  hormone as well as improving seratonin levels.

Cut Back on Simple Carbs
During cold days, when we spend more time on the couch, we may also be spending more time with white pasta, candy, potato chips, cookies and other ‘comfort’ foods. Unfortunately, these foods cause sharp spikes in our glucose levels that play havoc with our moods.  If you’re suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s a good idea to pay special attention to eating well.

Take Advantage of Natural Light
When possible open your drapes or shutters to let in the sun (when it makes an appearance!).  Spend time outside by going for a walk, shoveling the driveway, or inviting friends over for a snowball fight or snowman-building competition.  As long as you dress warmly, it can be fun.

Use a Natural Spectrum Energy Light
If Mother Nature doesn’t provide enough natural light, box light therapy is an alternative. Natural spectrum energy lights mimic the sun’s rays.  While data on the results of these lights is mixed, many people say that they are helpful.

Make a Point of Socializing
When we’re feeling depressed, often the last thing we want to do is be with other people. However, this is often what is needed.  If possible, plan a regular get-together with friends–even a coffee date will do.

Meet with a Therapist and/or Medical Professional
As with any form of depression, sometimes it becomes difficult to cope with.  If you are feeling unsafe, hopeless, attempting to self-soothe with self-harming behaviours, alcohol or drugs, feel that SAD is taking over life or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for professional help ASAP.  You don’t have to cope with this alone.

And now…here’s a break from the winter.  No sunscreen required!  Enjoy!

 

 

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