Nobody chooses to have depression. But that doesn’t mean you have zero control over this serious and sometimes debilitating health disorder that affects some 350 million people. Just as you can help to improve the condition—with exercise, cognitive therapy, medication, addressing any underlying conditions (like a thyroid disorder), and other therapies—you can also make it worse. Read on to learn about the everyday habits that can keep the black cloud from lifting.
1. What you eat
You know the expression, you are what you eat, of course. We might also say: You feel what you eat. In a study, researchers in Australia linked a typical Western diet—of processed or fried foods, refined grains, sugary products, and beer—to greater depression and anxiety in women compared to a diet of vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and whole grains. The researchers, believe that it’s the composition of our microbiome, that community of microorganisms living in our digestive system, that exert an influence on mental health. In continuing research, they’re exploring how improving the diet can help ease psychological symptoms. They’re also looking into the connection between depression and “leaky gut,” a condition in which a weakened stomach lining allows the contents of the gut to leak into the body and trigger an immune response that, in turn, contributes to depression. Until scientists can pinpoint the exact dietary culprits behind psychological distress, it can’t hurt to cut back on the sugary, carby crap—like white bread, white pasta, and pastries—and eat more whole, fresh foods that you recognize from nature. (Take back control of your eating—and lose weight in the process.
2. How you sleep (or don’t)
It’s no surprise that lack of shut-eye plays a major role in mental health. “Sleep disturbance is a significant depression symptom, and changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia, can signal, or even trigger, a depressive episode. Insomnia is common in people with depression, as is early morning awakening. To help people with depression sleep better, some good old fashioned sleep hygiene: keeping bedtime and wake-times consistent and shutting off screens a few hours before bedtime to limit blue light, which can throw off melatonin cycles.
3. Your social media habits
Social media is not always a happy pastime. Not only have researchers identified a phenomenon called “Facebook depression”—the result of not getting the likes one hopes for in relation to their number of friends—but there’s now plenty of evidence linking depression with excessive digital activity, like texting, watching video clips, video gaming, chatting, emailing, and other media use. Kim suspects it may be related to feelings of isolation and can exacerbate social anxiety among those who might be prone to it. On the flip side, she says, Facebook can ease symptoms of depression in some cases of those who feel isolated, because it aids socialization. If Facebook bums you out more than it makes you happy, take long social media breaks and remember that most people are only posting about the good stuff in their lives—not the parking tickets, bad haircuts, and dishes piled in the sink.
4. Your stress management style
Stressful situations can sink depressives into a deeper funk. But they don’t affect everyone equally. A study in the journal Science that explored why stressful experiences lead to depression in some people, but not in others, found the likely culprit to be a gene that regulates serotonin levels in the brain. Of course you can’t swap out your genes, but you can take steps to keep stress levels in check, mindful meditation—the practice of contemplating the present moment and breathing deeply—can be effective in easing psychological stress. Stop, Breathe and Think is an easy-to-use app that can help you learn to practice mindful meditation.