Helping Depression with Exercise, Diet, and Mindset – Part 1

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM

Easy steps for helping depressionEveryone experiences setbacks, disappointments and obstacles in life, and sometimes these painful experiences can add up to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and the fear things will never change or get better. These are the feelings we know as depression. However, there are important ways for helping depression that everyone needs to know. Sometimes depression comes from chemicals, experiences, or an unbalanced stress response, but what is important to know is that through taking simple steps like improving diet, exercising, looking for chances to grow through difficult experiences, and reaching out to others, it is possible to change your circumstances.

What is Depression?

Depression is commonly defined as a low state of mood which then causes an apathy and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, and sense of well-being. Often times, a person who is experiencing depression loses interest in activities that they used to consider pleasurable. This alone can lead to a multitude of issues such as problems with relationships, overeating, difficulty concentrating, and confused decision making.

Nobody’s life is perfect. Everyone, or at least most of us, experience days and weeks and months that just aren’t quite as good as we expect. We all deal with disappointments, heartbreak, family issues, stress with work, and many other things which can get in the way of happiness. The important thing to note is that, when someone struggles with depression, it is not as easy to shrug off these problems. However, as hopeless as depression may feel, there are methods for helping depression.

Chemical Signals and Depression

There are many researchers who believe that depression results from a chemical imbalance, although the process of how these chemical reactions in the brain help to contribute to depression is very complex.

There is no doubt that chemicals are a large part of the process. However, it is not just a simple matter of a singular chemical being too low or high. Many different chemicals and processes are involved. Because of this fact, there may be two people who have very similar symptoms of depression, but the way in which their depression should be cared for sometimes needs to be substantially different.

There are two main neurotransmitters that play a major role in depression. The first type of chemical neurotransmitter is serotonin. Serotonin helps to regulate sleep, mood, appetite, and inhibit pain. There is a large base of research that suggests that people who suffer from depression also have lower serotonin transmission levels. Research shows there is a higher risk of suicide in individuals who have lower serotonin byproduct levels.

using dopamine for helping depressionThe next neurotransmitter of note is called dopamine. Dopamine is very important as it relates to movement, motivation, and plays a large role in how an individual perceives reality. Individuals who have dysregulated dopamine production often have serious implications, including psychosis, hallucinations, and delusional thought. Because of its role in the body’s reward system, dopamine often is associated with substance abuse and addiction.

Exercise and Elevating Mood

Exercise is a back to basics approach. The idea is to just get out, get moving, and you will feel much better.

Though this seems like a tired and arduous approach, there is merit in simplicity sometimes. Most people view exercise as a basic thing that we all take part in, many times without more than a social need to be fit and lose weight. However, for helping depression, it’s important to look beyond the aesthetics and consider the many ways in which exercise can help your mental state.

When you exercise, your body releases endorphins which stimulate growth of new brain cells and can even help you concentrate. Because of this, often exercise promotes higher self-esteem. There aren’t many people who could use a little boost in their self-image and sense of well-being. Not only this, but physical activity also has the side effect of elevating self-worth and making one feel as though they have achieved something. There are many instances in which gaining a feeling of control, which exercise provides, can assist in helping depression. Physical fitness is a remedy that is often talked about but also under-utilized.

There have been many studies that show that exercise can help improve mild to moderate depression with the same effectiveness as prescription antidepressants. This is great news for anyone who is focusing on helping depression in a natural way. In a day and age where we are often offered pills to help us forget our problems, it is welcome to have another option.

There are many benefits of exercise in place of taking drugs to help ward off poor mood, one of which is the fact that there are many fewer negative side effects involving exercise. In practice, exercise actually has positive side effects. It is often a much better option for the whole body than pharmaceutical pathways to helping depression.

While there are many benefits to a natural approach, it should be noted that there are circumstances where a pharmacological approach is necessary. Natural methods are great for mild to moderate depression, but not necessarily severe cases. It is always recommended that when you are beginning any plan for helping depression, you consult a professional regarding your personal situation. There are things that work for some people that do not necessarily work for everyone, and safety should be considered above all else.

Considering Mindset and Helping depression

One of the less talked about methods for helping depression lies within our own minds. There are countless success stories from people who have taken a mindful approach to helping depression through focusing on mindset and perspective.

Helping depression with positive mindsetMany people who suffer from depression find themselves viewing life as an all or nothing game, a sort of zero sum experience. However, this is not the only way of looking at things. There are things that happen in all of our lives that could be viewed as positive or negative; many times our experiences are a mixture of both aspects. It might be considered tragic to lose a job. However, this can also be viewed as an opportunity to take the next step in progressing towards your personal goals and expanding your future. This type of change in perspective can make a big difference in allowing people to grow in their understanding of the true loss they have experienced and move onwards to take advantage of all life has to offer.

There are other benefits to adopting a more positive mindset as well. A more positive mindset allows your body to avoid reacting negatively to situations that aren’t necessarily truly dangerous threats to your wellbeing. There are chemical differences in how your body reacts when you perceive things as threats. Often during stressful circumstances, people experience what is known as the fight or flight response, which then sparks a cascade of physical reactions that can lead to or worsen depression.

When your body thinks it is in danger, it releases several chemicals to help better respond to the threat. This is a healthy, natural reaction designed for escaping or fighting off a physical danger. The problems lie in the fact that, often in modern life, the fight or flight response is triggered when there is only the perception of physical danger or future danger to well-being.

Normally, when the fight or flight response is triggered and the body is made ready for intense physical activity, the easiest way to cope is through physical exercise, which burns off the adrenaline and normalizes the body’s hormones. When this does not take place, it takes longer for the chemicals associated with the fight or flight response to return to normal levels. These chemicals can have a damaging effect on the normal operation of the body, resulting in fatigue and other symptoms.

Mindset comes into play here because how you look at a situation can sometimes change whether your body sees it as a threat, allowing you to mitigate the negative effects of an overly energetic fight or flight response. There will always be situations that are beyond our control, and many events in life are not necessarily good or bad, black or white. However, it is helpful to try to see the positive in negative situations and find ways that a potentially negative experience might be a chance to grow in life and as a person. Looking for silver linings and using humor are also good strategies to cope.

Helping depression by staying positiveWhen the mind views situations as black and white, it often uses certain words which, when we think of them, evoke mental triggers that can cause the fight or flight response. A few of those words are: impossible, ruined, disastrous, furious, terrible, awful, and never. These words focus on the negative. It is important to identify some of these words and try to remove them from our vocabulary in times of stress. When we think this way, it is difficult to feel hope. This lack of hope, and feeling things will not change, are characteristic thought patterns in depression. In reality, every single situation is not controllable, but we can focus on those aspects of life we do have control over, including mindset.

When considering methods for helping depression, this approach focuses on gradual improvement more than the that outright abolition of symptoms. Changing mindset habits is a slow process, although it can have big benefits overall. Setting small, achievable goals is a good way to help you on the path to success.

Read Part 2 | Part 3

© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Helping Depression