Thursday, March 1, 2012

Escape Depression Without Meds

My evidence is anecdotal, but some anecdotal evidence is more sound than others.  You be the judge.

I'm a licensed social worker, mental health specialist, and a depression survivor. My experience in the profession has taught me to both appreciate and loathe drugs.

If you're experiencing depression, or know someone who is, understand that meds are only a temporary bandage for the underlying problem. They're potentially helpful, but also harmful as the mechanisms of their efficacy are not fully understood—even by their own manufacturers. Research and development and psychopharmacology go hand in hand:
  1. Develop a product that you think will have a desired effect
  2. Test it to see what it actually does
  3. Get approval to market it for that purpose
  4. Wait and see what other useful side effects occur
  5. Seek approval to market for those purposes
  6. If secondary use approval can't be obtained, encourage physicians to informally use the product for those purposes anyway, off-book
  7. Remain in a perpetual state of awe and wonder ("We know it works, but we're not exactly sure why.") while continuing to tinker with the next generation version of the product
  8. Discontinue the original product if projected lawsuit costs exceed projected revenues, or a generic version becomes available (i.e., product no longer profitable).
Sounds harsh doesn't it?  I invite you to take a hard look at the industry and do your homework if you're keen to disagree, but in the meantime I wouldn't recommend using anything that hasn't been on the market for at least 10 years.  Without longitudinal data over a diverse population, you're essentially functioning as a laboratory guinea pig by using  the 'latest and greatest' that the industry as to offer.  But you should also consider a long term solution that doesn't involve pharmaceuticals.

I said I'm a survivor. I loathe that term, but I use it because it's an expression that people can relate to.  Here's what worked for me in my own struggle with depression:

Counseling

Yeah, it seems useless. No one can fix what is wrong in your life, but it helps to talk and be listened to.  Feelings overwhelm you when you keep them trapped inside. They need somewhere to go.  Find a professional, then find the words to express what's happening inside.  If the words don't come, they can help you find those, too... and ways to consider those thoughts from another perspective.

Social connectivity

People often say "Get a life" in a derogatory way.  It should be considered helpful advice for everyone, even if it's often misused and cruelly intended.  When you look at your calendar or consider the week ahead, what are you looking forward to?  If the answer is "Nothing" or "TV", it's time to plan something with a friend or a group.  Go out to dinner, walk the dogs, or sign up for a class through the recreation centre. Volunteer. Develop a hobby or involve yourself with a club, committee or interest group. Weave yourself into the social fabric.  It's possible with any budget.  It may not solve your problems, but it increases the ratio of positive to negative.

Self-sentenced solitary confinement does nothing but allow you to dwell on how low you feel.

Diet

I was a depression eater.  I ate to feel better and instead just got fatter, and the fatter I became the more depressed I got.  While my life has felt beyond my control, my body really wasn't.  I seized control of it by force, by figuring out how much I should be eating in a day and tracking calories (and it's easy with the mobile apps that exist today).  As the fat melted away, my energy level increased. My physical pain disappeared.  My satisfaction with how I looked skyrocketed.  My self esteem returned.  But I did one better: I took supplements of  natural anti-depressants—things I'd read about that had evidence to support their use: daily omega-3s, vitamin D and dark chocolate.  I felt amazing, and didn't think I could ever top that feeling, until...

Exercise

In 20 years, the best antidepressant I've found is vigorous daily exercise: powerwalking, aerobics, weights... anything that gets your heart rate up and produces a good sweat.  Not only does this fuel the weight loss progress which your diet is promoting, it floods your bloodstream with endorphins—more natural anti-depressants.  Lift weights and the calorie burn will continue for hours after you've stopped.  Hours.

Start light, but push yourself to do more each time.  A few more minutes, a few more repetitions, a little more weight.  Exercise 3 times a week.  After a week or two you will notice how those endorphins have lifted your mood, and you'll realize there's an infinite supply within reach.  No prescription and no trip to the pharmacy required—unless you want to jog there to buy another bottle of shower gel.

Excerise can become physically and psychologically addictive.  Taken to an extreme—doing it 3 hours a day, every day, and not eating enough to maintain a healthy weight—it can be harmful. But used as therapy every other day it is absolutely healthy, and of all things you could be addicted to, this is one of the best.

Sleep

Depression, exhaustion, weight gain—they can all stem from lack of sleep.  It may feel childish (or elderly) to start winding down at 10 p.m. in order to be sleeping by 10:30, but 7 or 8 hours is required to charge your batteries for the 16 or 17 coming the following day. Take the occasional late night, but make them the exception, especially on weekdays.

Don't just do one of these, do all of them.
  • Master one aspect  at a time to make it less daunting, but make sure you're working towards  functioning well in all these areas.
  • Make a plan, even if it's just a rough mental sketch ("Today I will find a calorie tracking app and start tracking what I eat; next month I'll worry about nutrition.")
  • Have dates for each change in your life, and hold yourself accountable for making deadlines.
For some, depression is a transitory state in life, but we all get our turn, and many may continue cycling through the turnstiles for the rest of their lives.

All of these in combination are a better and more permanent treatment for a long term (and potentially lifelong) condition than any drug on the market.

I know people who have been on antidepressants for 5-10 years... leaning on them like training wheels they are afraid to take off. Don't succumb.  Build the foundation I've described.  I can't absolutely promise it will solve everything, but I believe it will improve your life beyond anything you've experienced so far.

If you feel you need meds to get past the present, that 's your choice, but build the foundation for a future.  Once the lifestyle and support net is in place, it's time to let go... embrace reality with the assistance of healthy life choices and a strong personal network.

You can do it.  I did.  I still am.

Related Links:

MyFitnessPal - Free calorie tracking, nutritional tracking, and social networking.

The Hacker's Diet - Free diet book and computer-based tools for tracking