To survive in the modern world, the importance of one’s mental wellbeing has at least achieved parity with that of one’s physical health. Unfortunately, however, the human mind is severely maladapted to said modern world. The 24/7 media, aggressive advertising, ever-poorer job security, rising living costs, debt, identity deprivation, societal atomisation – the list of pressures on our mental stability are endless, making it a miracle that so many of us manage to hold it together, at least on the surface. But for many others, these factors can be a lethal cocktail that fuels severe neurotic disorders, most commonly depression and anxiety.
The question that mental health professionals often pose is why do so many of us in the modern world suffer from such ailments? This is the wrong question. What they should be asking is, given the state of the world and how far removed we are from an ideal state of living, why do so many people seemingly not suffer from these ailments? After all, it’s rather miraculous that relatively few people actually suffer from these problems to the extent that they need medical treatment.
But nevertheless, the numbers of those suffering from such things are not small. According to the NIMH, 16 million American adults had at least one depressive episode in 2012, which equates to 6.9% of the population. The World Health Organisation estimates that a minimum of 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. These cases are mostly concentrated in Europe, the Anglosphere and Eastern Asia, with countries like Japan having unusually large suffering rates, and the Nordic countries having relatively astronomical rates of anti-depressant prescriptions. So in reality, it is not such a small problem.
Depending on who you speak to, what you should do in the event of a depressive episode will vary greatly. You could ask 5 general practitioners even, and quite reasonably expect to receive 5 entirely different answers. The reason for this is the relatively little understanding we as a society have of how the mind works; some studies indicate depression is caused by a lack of serotonin in the brain, which is at least partly certain, but then some clinicians believe that an excess of serotonin will cause anxiety. Similarly, some Doctors will be quick to reach for the medicine cabinet, whilst others will insist on exhausting all manner of talking and cognitive behavioural therapies before they even consider writing a script.
This is unfortunate. Mental ailments, particularly depression, can be severely debilitating, so to discover that even the medical world doesn’t necessarily have all the answers can be somewhat disheartening. However, all hope is not lost. Depression is an extremely treatable problem, especially if you’re willing to work at it. There are a plethora of measures you can take before you even speak to a Doctor that can improve your mental state drastically, ranging from exercise to herbal supplements to simple lifestyle changes.
One of the most common themes in people suffering from depression is their relative isolation from wider society. This means they’re usually lacking in the mental stimulus most people get in abundance from work or socialising, and this deficiency can be very damaging to one’s mental state. So in the first instance, get a job! It sounds basic, but forcing yourself to be in an environment in which you can’t help but interact with others can be extremely positive for your mental wellbeing. Earning money also boosts your self-esteem, which is almost a necessary prerequisite to beating the blues.
If you’re not in the market for full-time work, that’s not too much of an issue, though. Enrol in a college course, volunteer at your local library or charity of your choice; do anything that regularly gets you out of the house. Volunteering can be especially beneficial to your mental health, as altruism is strongly associated with increased levels of dopamine. This is the chemical that enables your brain’s reward centre to work, effectively determining whether or not you’ll feel pleasure in doing things you like. Earning money or helping others is proven to increase levels of dopamine, therefore by doing this you will be better able to enjoy your personal pursuits in your down time.
It’s become almost something of a cliché to suggest that exercise contributes to a healthy mind, but the truth is that it really does! Your brain and body work in tandem, and a healthy body gives you a better chance of having a healthy brain, and visa versa. On a technical level, exercise is proven to cause your body to release endorphins, which have a natural calming effect on your central nervous system. This will help you to focus your mind, think more rationally and generally feel more comfortable in your own skin – something which is surprisingly difficult to feel when you’re depressed.
Furthermore, exercising and putting yourself in a better physical condition will greatly increase your self-esteem. Life is infinitely more bearable when you can look at your reflection and genuinely be pleased with what you see. This can also give you a feeling of accomplishment, particularly if your exercise goal is to build or define muscle. That said, a cardiovascular workout is more beneficial in terms of your body’s hormone balance – lifting weights won’t do you any harm, however.
This is perhaps an odd feature of this article, in the sense that most written works attempting to offer people help for depression are inherently anti-medication. This is generally a partisan perspective, perpetuated by people who have an axe to grind against pharmaceutical companies or basing their information on their own personal negative experiences. In the majority of cases, however, medication really can work, and in some cases it is the only action that will lift you out of a rut, so to speak. If your depressive symptoms are severe to the extent that you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or a desire to harm yourself, any responsible clinician will prescribe psychotropic medication.
Their usual poison of choice is Fluoxetine (Prozac), although Citalopram and Sertraline have also become favourites for depression due to their proven track record of effectiveness. In some cases, an antipsychotic agent such as Quetiapine may be prescribed, but these are very strong and are usually reserved for those experiencing manic bipolar-type symptoms. The first medicines I mentioned are part of a group of drugs known as SSRIs – Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. Their mechanism of action is to block the receptors in the brain that absorb serotonin, thereby increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain. This is thought to lift your mood, and whilst clinical trials have not always been conclusive, the patient-based evidence suggests they’re at least 20% more effective than a placebo in treating depressive symptoms.
A word of caution, however; whilst medication is absolutely necessary for those suffering the very worst of depressive symptoms, they will not cure depression on their own. Realistically, one can expect a standard anti-depressant to lift the worst of the symptoms, taking you from severely depressed to mildly-moderately depressed. The rest you have to do on your own. Antidepressant medication should be considered as something that enables you to go out and help yourself, as opposed to the cure in itself. It will make the world more bearable, so that getting a job, socialising and going out to enjoy the outdoors are more palatable.
Diet & Supplements
Another way in which you can help yourself and give yourself the best chance of recovery is through making some quick, simple changes to your diet in order to get the right “brain fuel”. The two foods that are most conducive to a healthy mind are eggs and fresh fish. These contain serotonin which, as we previously mentioned, is proven to have at least some positive effect on your state of mind. The catch with drugs like Prozac and other SSRIs is that they will increase the levels of serotonin in the brain out of what’s available, but they do not increase the production of the chemical – foods such as fish and eggs do, thanks to the natural fats and oils they contain.
Nuts are another good source of “brain fuel”, as they’re believed to increase levels of certain hormones in the brain. In particular, you should look to increasing your consumption of almonds, unless of course you dislike nuts. Almonds not only help boost serotonin, but they’re also associated with increased levels of dopamine.
I would also strongly recommend looking into two supplements to strengthen your mental wellbeing. Firstly, Vitamin D. Vitamin D is strongly linked to the level of sunlight your body is exposed to, which goes some way to explaining why so many in the Nordic countries are being treated for depression. Limited sunlight can lead to something known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known by many as the winter blues for the reason that it is caused by Vitamin D starvation during the dark winter months. You can pick up Vitamin D supplements practically anywhere, and they’re relatively cheap and easy to take.
Secondly, there’s a substance called Hydroxytryptophan that has been found to be especially beneficial to people suffering from depression. Its commonly known as 5-HTP, and works by increasing the level of serotonin in your body, in much the same was as eggs and fish do but on a much larger scale. It’s recommended that you check with a pharmacist before mixing 5-HTP with prescription medication, but it is certainly a recommended addition to your diet, particularly if you’re not a fan of fish.
It’s often charged that many people ignore the signs and symptoms of depression and instead seek to mask them with caffeine, or other stimulating drugs. This may well be true, but it isn’t such a bad idea. Stimulants really do work in terms of lifting the lethargy and inertia associated with a depressive state, so there are a number of legal substances you can take that will have this effect. Of course, caffeine is the most popular of them all, but for people suffering with depression it can often be too strong a buzz that will lead to an uncomfortable irritability and restlessness. Instead, Green Tea is the recommended vehicle of choice for caffeine ingestion in depressives, mostly because it provides a softer, more calming energy, but also because of its well-known ability to increase the levels of dopamine in the brain.
Nicotine is another substance that is known to have stimulating properties and to help people with depression. However, the caution for this drug needs no introduction. Obviously we all know the dangers of smoking cigarettes, so if you do not already smoke but would like to try nicotine to control mildly depressive symptoms, I strongly recommend you use a vape or another less harmful mechanism. There is also vague evidence to suggest that quitting smoking can improve depressive symptoms, but it’s more likely to do with other harmful chemicals in cigarettes as opposed to the actual drug nicotine.
Finally, I would recommend that everybody with depression adds L-tyrosine to their diet. Tyrosine is a supplement that can be bought in health food shops and some pharmacies, and many people report that its effectiveness in treating depression surpasses any prescription drug on the market. It works by increasing the levels of adrenaline in the body, which boosts energy levels and stimulates the mind. It also greatly increases the levels of dopamine in the brain, and this effect is best realised by taking it on a totally empty stomach (3 hours after food, 1 hours minimum before). Again, I must qualify this with a word of caution; L-Tyrosine is not for the fainthearted. It can cause severe anxiety, particularly if you take more than the recommended dosage of 500mg per day. There is also an increased risk of suicide associated with powerful stimulants, but the immediate improvement in symptoms that most people feel after taking it does not warrant such a black label warning.
First of all, it is important to dispel the myth that being spiritual automatically means one must be religious. This is not the case. A person can have a strong sense of the spiritual without necessarily subscribing to a particular religious belief system. That said, there is reason to believe that finding religion can help a person make sense of the world, and striving toward a higher purpose can really change a person’s outlook on life for the better. One thing is certain; nihilism is the quickest route to depression. A nihilistic outlook must be avoided at all costs if you desire mental stability and wellbeing.
The merits of Christianity as a tool for improving one’s mental state are questionable. It’s hard to advocate for depressives to look to a religion that tells you you’re a sinner, that you must forever repent and live an unnatural lifestyle in order to be accepted and approved by their conception of God. However, if it works for you, then who are we to knock it. Often people find that vicars are the best therapists, because of their understanding nature and willingness to listen without judgement. If other avenues are closed to you, there’s no harm in going down this route without giving yourself to the church.
Eastern religious traditions seem to be incredibly more beneficial to the mental state, however. Meditation, for instance, is a practise that I would recommend for assisting with mental anguish. Some of the earliest references to meditation come from the Hindu Vedas, a large body of texts from pre-Abrahamic times concerning the Hindu faith. It’s also a practise employed by Buddhists, Confucianists and Taoists. Meditation, if nothing else, is a form of mindfulness whereby one can bring their mind back to the present, take a break from the seemingly 24/7 attractions of modern living and get to know one’s own mind. This can assist in making sense of the world and your place in it, whilst allowing a quiet time in which your mind can be calm and settled.
Another practise that I would strongly recommend, again one which we get from Indian antiquity, is yoga – no Peter, it isn’t satanic. What we practise today is a modern interpretation of yoga, but the guiding principles of the discipline remain the same. Combining various stretches and exercises with controlled breathing techniques, Yoga can be extremely beneficial for both the body and mind. It’s great for core muscle strength, with Hatha Yoga in particular being a source of great physical workout. But also, it has a calming effect that helps bring the mind and the soul back into alignment. It’s incredible to behold the profound moments of realisation and clarity one can have about the world whilst in a relaxed state during yoga practise.
Some final thoughts…
Whilst I am often quick to dismiss it, based on its very loose scientific evidence and the fact its generally provided by incompetent swindlers, therapy can be useful in some cases. Talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) have been found to be beneficial in some sufferers of depression and anxiety, but its effectiveness is mostly concentrated in the latter. In any case, most people with an average or above level of intellect will see it for the mental illusion it really is. Other therapies, however, such as hypnotherapy and neurolinguistic programming can be life-changing in some cases, and they don’t even require you to actually talk about your problems if you’d rather not.
Finally, this guide is no substitute for professional medical help. Those who find themselves in the unfortunate situation of being depressed should speak to a qualified professional as their first option, unless they’re already reasonably initiated in the realms of mental health. If you ever feel suicidal, then of course there is no substitute for professional help. But remember that such thoughts occur not from your natural state of being, but as a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes the sufferer to not be in their right mind (this is not akin to insanity). Therefore, in such cases, your treatment should be delegated to a medical professional until such time that you’ve regained your ability to think rationally, which you will.
Even if you do not suffer from any of the issues mentioned above, it is worth adding certain elements of these recommendations to your lifestyle where appropriate. Increasing your intake of fish and eggs, or adding certain stimulants to your diet, and even taking some time out to meditate or practise yoga for 30 minutes a weak, can enhance and optimise your mental performance to a significant degree. It will also assist in immunising you to a certain extent from mental ailments, particularly if your general situation in life was to take a turn for the worse.