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Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a serious challenge that requires professional treatment (see “What You Can Do” sidebar). It often takes time and patience to overcome. And while there are no simple cures for this mood disorder, a Massachusetts General Hospital expert points out that there are common-sense steps that can help anyone living with depression.
“A number of behavioral and lifestyle factors are associated with improvements in mood, and adopting them certainly might be beneficial for people who are experiencing depression,” says Dr. Paola Pedrelli, PhD, the director of Dual Diagnoses Studies in Massachusetts General Hospital’s Depression Clinical and Research Program. “Research suggests that incorporating these factors into everyday life can help ease MDD symptoms in many individuals who are dealing with issues such as stress, negative thinking, and fatigue that often prolong low mood and feelings of hopelessness.”
Among the lifestyle factors that may help lead to an improved mood are the following common-sense strategies.
1. Reduce Stress
Try to avoid situations that make you feel tense or upset. Use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, or visualization to calm yourself when you feel stressed. Or spend 10 minutes or more each day practicing mindfulness meditation, in which you sit quietly and pay attention to the present moment, letting thoughts and sensations come and go without judging them.
Research suggests that regular exercise—30 minutes a day, five days or more per week of rhythmic exercise such as walking, swimming, or dancing—helps improve mood. Regular workouts increase levels of brain chemicals such as serotonin, glutamate, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), all of which help lower stress and boost mood. Exercise also promotes higher brain levels of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin.
3. Banish dysfunctional thinking
As you go about your day, try to avoid negative thought patterns such as perfectionism, self-criticism, cynicism, and pessimism, and replace them with more optimistic thoughts. Look for ways to improve your feelings of self-worth.
4. Practice gratitude
Research suggests that performing simple gratitude exercises—like jotting down three things for which you’re grateful every day—can increase feelings of well-being and reduce depression.
5. Get some sun
Bright light has been shown to counteract seasonal depression linked to reduced sunlight during the shorter days of winter, and some studies have shown that light therapy can improve non-seasonal depression as well. Try for at least 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight or bright light each day, and more is even better. For individuals whose mood is affected by shortened periods of daylight in winter, light boxes are available commercially that are designed to provide increased exposure to bright light.
WHEN YOU’RE FEELING DEPRESSED…
The first step you should take if you’re experiencing depression that has lasted two weeks or longer is to contact one of the following sources for a referral to a mental health professional who can offer medication and/or talk therapy:
- Your health care provider
- Your health insurance provider
- A local university’s psychiatry or psychology department
- A local hospital or clinic in your area
- Ask friends or relatives for recommendations
Insufficient or disrupted sleep can interfere with serotonin production, so establishing good sleep hygiene is an important way to ease depression. Try to limit daytime napping to an hour or less, provide a dark, quiet, and comfortable sleep environment, establish a regular sleep routine, reduce caffeine intake after noon, and avoid caffeine and vigorous activities close to bedtime. Aim for seven hours of sleep every night.
7. Eat well
A well-balanced, low-calorie, and low-fat diet with plenty of healthy carbohydrates—including whole grains, vegetables such as sweet potatoes and squash, avocados and bananas—helps increase serotonin levels by promoting the production of tryptophan, which your body converts to serotonin. Carbohydrates work best when combined with protein foods that themselves contain tryptophan, such as turkey, chicken, pork, and lamb, and foods containing balanced fats such as fatty fish, eggs, and low-fat cheeses and milk that also raise levels of serotonin. Avoid processed, sugary and fat-laden foods, and limit alcohol consumption to just one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. (See also “What Is Nutrition? Our Practical Diet Guide Explains.”
Avoid isolating yourself. Make it a point to spend time with upbeat people whose attitudes you find uplifting and reassuring, especially if you’re feeling stressed.
9. Do things you enjoy, even if they don’t seem fun right now
Consider resuming activities that used to bring you joy. You might take up a new hobby, listen to your favorite music, or take yourself to the movies. Distracting yourself by becoming absorbed in enjoyable activities can help you forget your depression, at least for a while.