In his book, “Lost Connections,” Johan Hari recounts the story of a Cambodian vegetable farmer who lost his leg when he stepped on a landmine. After receiving medical care and being fitted with a prosthetic leg, the farmer was still in chronic pain and could no longer work his land. He fell into a profound depression.
His community gathered around him, listened to his struggles, and offered support. A neighbor had the idea that although regular farming was now too difficult, he could probably be a dairy farmer, so the village pooled funds to buy the man a cow. His sense of purpose was restored, and the man’s depression lifted.
Later a psychologist came to the village to study the effects of living in an area littered with land mines. While conducting his research, the psychologist explained the concept of “depression” to the villagers as a sadness that does not go away. They agreed that this definition had applied to the farmer. But when the psychologist told them about anti-depressants, a medicine designed to lift the depression, they said to him that they already had this medicine:
“The cow is the medicine.”
We typically define “medicine” as a drug or curative substance. If instead, medicine is anything that cures a disease or solves a problem, it might be many things. In this case, it was a cow, the prosthetic, and community support. In isolation, each of these building blocks was not enough.
Taken together, the depression lifted.
In your life, what are your anti-depressants? One of them might be an actual SSRI, but even if that’s the case, medicine is usually just one component of managing anxiety and depression.
What are the building blocks you cobble together to live well and keep anxiety and depression at bay? If you think you need more or better supports, here are some areas to look at:
If we are denying our bodies the nutrition, exercise, and sleep we need, our bodies will rebel. People who over-restrict calories may feel nervous and agitated; people who take in too many calories may feel sluggish and low. Our bodies rely on movement to operate correctly. And sleep is crucial for cognitive functioning, especially mood regulation.
These are things we all understand, yet don't always prioritize. A common human downfall is to believe our bodies can be dominated and controlled, or conversely, ignored. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are abusing ourselves until our body pushes back in painful and debilitating ways.
We all know we are supposed to move our bodies, get enough sleep, and eat a healthy, varied diet. If you are struggling in any of these areas, try to make small, incremental improvements. Attending to your physical health might make a tremendous impact on your mental health.
We are people who need people. Debra Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez, sociologists at the University of Texas, conducted a meta-study showing that “social relationships have short- and long-term effects on health, for better and for worse, and that these effects emerge in childhood and cascade throughout life to foster cumulative advantage or disadvantage in health.”
When we are feeling low, we tend to isolate ourselves, under-value the relationships we have, and sometimes focus on people who have not met our expectations. We tell ourselves a story that we are alone, unloved, and have no one. If this sounds like you, it will help to start pushing yourself to connect, especially when you don’t feel like it. If you're feeling down and don’t want to reach out to talk about yourself, instead reach out and focus on what is going on for someone else. It can be a huge relief to focus on someone else’s ups and downs instead of on your own.
And don’t disregard lower-level interactions, such as chatting with your barista, or making small talk with co-workers, or even saying good morning to the people you pass every day on your commute. These are all reliable mood elevators. If creating and maintaining relationships is a continuous struggle, therapy can help.
We tend to venerate those who have found their purpose, and we should. Usually, these people are doing amazing things in the world. But if you aren’t lucky enough to know exactly what holds the most meaning for you, there is no shame in starting small.
Research shows that volunteering can reduce your depression and increase your well-being and self-esteem. Look around at your community and see if there is some small need that you could fulfill. You could take it upon yourself to keep your street clean. You could take your elderly neighbor’s dog out for a walk. You could organize a lending library at your office.
Look for something that you can engage in consistently, that is important to you and is a net positive for your community.
Take a minute to think through times in your life that took your breath away. Visiting the Grand Canyon. Listening to an amazingly talented street performer. Watching your child perform in a school event and thinking, “Look at this amazing person you’ve become.”
There are two parts to injecting your life with more awe-inspiring moments. First, you can plan highlight moments. The people who make an effort to watch the solar eclipse or to visit a national park are planning for awe. I'm a theater fan, and if I hear about an extraordinary performance, I snap up a ticket and see the show for myself.
The second part of experiencing awe is lingering over the moments right in front of you. Your neighbor’s brand new baby, or the beautiful writing in a novel you're reading, or the trees blossoming once it's finally spring. There are so many remarkable things and people all around us Make a point to savor them.
Take a minute to evaluate how you are doing in these four areas. Is there room for improvement? What is the next step you could take to attend to your body, to feel more connected, and to create more purpose and awe?
Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression-- and the Unexpected Solutions. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018.