To be honest I don’t think you can cure yourself of depression, any other sort of mental illness, or addiction, without help from others or drugs or both. I didn’t. And in fact I don’t think you can be cured of depression. At the moment (who knows in the future?) these things are a life sentence without a cure; the best we can do is keep it in abeyance for as long as we can, and if we’re very fortunate, that might be for the rest of our lives. But we require eternal vigilance.
But there are many things we can do to help to help ourselves, and these are some of the things that have helped me. I think everyone might find them helpful; if you’re not currently ill, then maybe these will help you to live just a little better life.
And apologies if they seem blindingly obvious to you; they weren’t to me. I’ve learnt them the hard way.
You cannot fight illness or addiction alone. You hopefully have already seen your doctor, but probably should be seeing a psychiatrist as well. I have tried different sorts of clinical psychology and therapy, and have eventually found a cognitive-based therapy system that looks at your childhood, attitudes, and relationships to be a revelation. Different things though seem to work for different people. You will need your friends too, and need to be open with them that you are depressed. For addiction support groups are invaluable. Fight that stigma!
There are many changes I have made that I think have contributed to my shift towards wellness.
Work. For want a better name – that thing that someone else pays you to spend your time doing. In the first instance you might need a period of time off work – look into your sick leave entitlement. Contact your HR department.
I took a long hard look at my academic job and decided I had had enough. There are many things I liked about it, but an increasing number of things I no longer enjoyed and that seemed to me to be pointless. On the other hand, I love writing and journalism, so I decided to “retire” and become a full-time writer. It’s a financial risk. It might not work out; I might be poor for the rest of my life. But at least I feel that I am in control, and doing only what I think is worthwhile.
You might say I’m lucky, and I certainly am (although after decades of hard work). But what is your health worth? What big changes can you afford to make? Is the big house and fast car really worth what you’re having to endure? And big changes don’t apply just to work either: is that toxic relationship really worth staying in?
Exercise. I think you have to be starting to get well to make some of these changes, or at least not in the pits, but I decided I had to lose weight and get fit. I, like many depressed people, am pretty useless at self-discipline. So I joined a gym and signed up with a personal trainer. It’s one of the best calls I’ve ever made. I’ve lost a lot of weight. I feel so much better; I have more energy and after each exercise session my mood is lifted. There’s plenty of evidence for the positive effects of exercise so get to it. And no, I still don’t really enjoy doing exercise, particularly cardio, which I find painful and boring.
Fresh air and light. Many of us who are depressed really benefit from more light. I try and maximize my exposure to sunshine, even sitting outside when it’s sunny but in the cold depths of winter. I have a light box that I use even in summer when it’s dull. I try and get as much fresh air and to get outside as much as I can even when I’m busy working at home.
Mindfulness and meditation. I find meditation difficult – sometimes it hurts my mind too much to sit still with nothing but my thoughts, even for as little as ten minutes – but I try. And I do gain a great deal from being mindful – trying to live in the moment and be present. The evidence suggests that mindfulness training might be as effective as medication. There are many good books and resources on mindfulness training, so give it a try. I particularly like the Headspace programme because it tells me exactly what to do.
Thoughts. I have tried to change my cognitive structure – saying “I am not my illness”, “I am not my addictions”, working out what the really important things are in my life and changing those things, trying to be honest with myself, and trying to be kind. I accept responsibility for things I do wrong and acknowledge the role of others when things go well. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious - I often fail.
Routine. I have written about my search for a perfect routine many times in my blog. How can the writer find a perfect day when they can write something good every day and yet fit everything else in? But a routine of some sorts is essential if you are or have been depressed. It’s boring and others might mock you for it, but you’re the one that’s ill or have been ill.
Sleep. My problem is staying awake at night and waking up in the morning. However, I used to have terrible trouble getting to sleep. The most important thing is to choose regular times and stick to them, come what may. I have a particular problem with waking in the morning, so I set my alarm for 7.20 and get up at 7.30. Occasionally I really struggle, but I will always be out of bed by 7.55.
Gratitude diary. My friend Ian Jay swears by a gratitude diary – somewhere towards the end of each day you list three things that day for which you’re grateful.
It’s important to do the things you have decided help you, particularly if you feel yourself becoming ill again. If you’re getting a bit down and start skipping your exercise you’re going to be in trouble. So write out a list and tick the things off every day.
I hope you find some of these ideas useful. Good luck with the fight regardless.
I have now lost 31 pounds since January while, thanks to my gym efforts and my personal trainer, at the same time I have put on detectable muscle. One to two pounds a week is generally considered to be a sustainable and healthy rate of weight loss.
The first point sounds obvious: you have to really want to lose weight. I’ve intended and tried to lose weight before and failed. It’s well know that many people go on a diet and then lapse, and within six months they’re back to where they were before – or even heavier. You have to make a commitment. By all means make a social commitment tell your friends what you hope to do, but the most important commitment is to yourself. Accept that it won’t be easy.
I remind myself of my goals several times a day. I use nudge techniques such as putting my scales in the middle of the bathroom floor so I have to look at them and walk around them. I bought some compression exercise gear which I wear all the time to remind myself of the shape I want to lose. I look in the mirror often. At the end of the day I think about what I’ve eaten – and what I haven’t eaten. I continually remind myself of why I’m getting fitter. I tell myself healthy body, healthy mind.
I became really, really fed up with psycho-tummy. Someone said I was developing a beer stomach – I don’t drink beer, with coeliac disease, and I couldn’t face explaining that it was a result (in part) of my medication. Then I weighed myself and worked out my BMI (body-mass index), and I saw that I had edged into the “obese” category. I know there’s a so-called “obesity epidemic”, but obesity is something that happens to other people!... the couch potatoes who stuff their faces with cake and crisps in front of daytime television. Not me. And because I felt fat, my self-esteem was falling. Self-esteem is a big problem in mental illness, and the last thing we need is people telling us bad things when we meet them on the street, or looking in the mirror and being reminded of how feeble we are. My blood pressure had crept up and being overweight is a major influence on blood pressure. I want to live to be over a hundred and be healthy, and you are unlikely to be able to do that if you’re overweight. Good eating is about so much more than losing weight. So there were many converging factors that made me resolute about changing.I should mention the caveat that I am neither a sports nor a nutritional scientist - but I am a scientist and have read a lot of the research. Unfortunately, much of this research is contradictory, and many diets strike me as faddy and having no scientific motivation. The Paleo and Primal diets are most logical, although the evidence about them is controversial at best, and I don’t understand some of the more extreme claims. But thinking from an evolutionary point of view does make sense to me: how have we evolved to eat? I simply try to eat healthily, with as much variety as possible, hoovering up nutrients and micronutrients, without going to any great extreme. So forget points, on and off days, food mixing, going to meetings, treats, and spending money on how to diet.
My name is Trevor Harley and you can find me at
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