Pay Attention

Our distracted age

Depressed? Let Me Count the Ways!

Amid the grim news, some good tactics to lift spirits

On any given day, I can find dozens of legitimate reasons to be depressed.

And is it just my imagination, or are there more of them recently?

Each newspaper brings new reports of wars, random cruelty, starving polar bears, and, yes, the declining newspaper industry. Everyone you meet has his nose stuck to his iPhone. The government shutdown—don’t get me started.

To paraphrase a classic bumper-sticker, if you don't think you're depressed, maybe you’re not paying attention.

None of us is getting any younger. Adorable babies grow up to be teens. The Buddha said it best: life is suffering.  This surely helps explain the enduring popularity of writers like Annie Lamott  and Elizabeth Gilbert: lots of us, particularly, as the stats show, women of child-bearing age, are so prone to sadness that it’s comforting to read about others who’ve walked the same path, and even found some relief with the right dose of Jesus and/or pasta and romance.

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The great mystery, as far as I’m concerned—at least at this writing, when I just happen to be in a fittingly grumpy mood (don’t ask)—is how come only 25 million Americans will suffer a major depressive episode this year? What are the most helpful of secrets (besides great genes) for the other 95 or so percent of the U.S. population who will manage to avoid it?

As someone who has suffered some serious periodic blues ever since I was a kid, I’ve assembled a toolbox of tactics that usually help. First up is exercise: studies show that physical activity actually releases serotonin in the brain—and yes, that’s the same substance that increases when you take anti-depressants. I make sure to get some sort of exercise every day—it’s as much a priority for me as meals.

Making sure to have regular and substantial contact with people I care about deeply is also high on my personal list. Casual, regular meetings with groups who share your interests (I really recommend Toastmasters)  have also been shown to help boost mood. Watching Homeland while ordering shoes online can offer thrills, but, come on, not the lasting kind.

Meditation can be dicey if you’ve really got the blues, since you can easily end up ruminating on what’s bringing you down. Yoga is a safer bet; breathing and moving and music in conjunction rarely fail to lift my mood. It’s also worth paying attention to the Dalai Lama—a master of cognitive behavioral therapy, which some studies suggest works as well as pills for depression and anxiety, by helping people change the content of their thoughts. I once heard him speak to why he doesn’t get depressed when he considers climate change: he said he purposely turns his attention to the efforts of all the brave people in the world who are trying to fix this vast problem.

If none of these self-help techniques is working, it’s time to ask yourself some hard questions to make sure a dip in mood isn’t dropping you into the red zone. Psychology Today readers may well be familiar with them, but they're still worth a review:

  • Are you having new trouble sleeping through the night?
  • Losing interest in things you usually love, especially food?
  • Feeling like it’s just no use?
  •  Even thinking of suicide?

If you’re checking off one or more of these, it’s a good idea to take things to the next level and seek professional help. And maybe skip the newspaper, just for today.

 

 

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize winning author.

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