Depression and Anxiety: What, Why, and How
It’s the sad truth, that many of us today suffer from stress and stress-related mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 6 U.S. adults are living with a diagnosed mood disorder (with many more undiagnosed, which is even more worrying). The world that we live in can be stressful, and at times, even heartbreaking, leaving many of us feeling deflated and defeated.
When demanding responsibilities make it difficult to switch off at night; when the unbearable commute to work steals so much of our limited free time; when mourning the loss of a loved one; or when we’re feeling hopeless and we don’t know why, it can feel as if life is dragging us down, eating away at our mental health chunk by chunk.
While there are (usually) no permanent cures for these mood disorders, there are some natural remedies for depression and anxiety that can improve the way we feel—these remedies can even supplement the treatments and medications offered by doctors.
Depression vs. Anxiety
What is Depression?
Depression is a relatively common (and sometimes completely normal, by the way) mental illness that negatively impacts the way that we think, feel, and act. Signs of depression include feeling sad, a change in appetite (either overeating or not eating at all), sleeping too much or having trouble drifting off to sleep, loss of interest in hobbies and activities we once enjoyed, fatigue, lack of energy, lack of concentration, feelings of worthlessness, a tendency to blame oneself, and thoughts of death and/or suicide.
Depression can vary from mild to severe, and as you may have surmised from the symptoms above, it can sometimes be quite difficult to notice or diagnose. Sometimes depression is a symptom of an underlying mood disorder, other times depression is simply depression, a normal feeling that we’ll all experience from time to time.
What causes depression is still a bit of a mystery, however, there are various circumstances and factors that have been found to trigger it, including (but certainly not limited to): abuse (mental, physical, or sexual), certain medications, stress, bereavement, substance abuse, genetic predisposition, and of course, diet.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a term used to describe feelings of fear and anxiousness. Like depression, anxiety can be a symptom of a mood disorder, or a feeling on its own. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure”. What causes anxiety is still not fully understood either, however the triggers are similar to those of depression, and can often be remedied with a change in diet and lifestyle.
Natural Remedies for Depression and Anxiety
Although very different, depression and anxiety are not always separate. Depression can often include signs of anxiety (i.e. feelings of worry, fear, or tension), which is why diagnosis of mood disorders tends to take a while, and can even be misdiagnosed.
Mood disorders are a complex and widely debated subject, with many attributed to different symptoms and causes (stimulatory, environmental, genetic, and so on).
While these terms have specific meaning in the fields of biology and medicine, at the end of the day, fundamentally, they’re feelings, and we can all experience them from time to time, and sometimes even remedy them, without a medical diagnosis. The best way to take care of our mental health isn’t necessarily to acquire a formal diagnosis, or find out “what we have”, but rather to understand more about how we feel, and why.
Being mindful, basically.
We know our bodies better than anybody else. By taking a mindful approach to our mental health, we can decipher what our bodies need, why, and when.
Let’s take a look.
It should come as no surprise that animals are used as a form of therapy. Both dogs and cats are used to comfort the elderly and sick, and they’re also trained to help children with learning disabilities. Dogs are used in court to comfort victims, and San Francisco Airport even has its own therapy pig. Seriously. Animals are naturally anti-depressive, and being around them is an effective way to boost our mood.
Research has shown that petting a dog can reduce fear, depression, anxiety, and cortisol levels (a stress-related hormone), all the while increasing levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin is commonly known as the satisfaction hormone, or “love hormone”.
And this effect isn’t limited to dogs either; studies have shown that spending time with other animals like horses, rabbits, and guinea pigs can have the same mood-boosting effects. Dogs (especially) are able to magically detect when we’re sad. They’re incredibly empathetic, and they can read our facial expressions and respond to them.
Pets are our friends though (and very good boys), so don’t “get one” only for this reason (and always adopt or foster). If you don’t have the time and money for a furry friend, spend time at the local shelter or visit friends and family that do. If all else fails, consider visiting a cat café or dog café—these are quickly becoming a worldwide trend!
As well as our physical health, the foods that we eat can affect our mental health and wellbeing as well. Our bodies need energy and (the correct) nutrients in order to function correctly and create neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, all of which act as natural antidepressants when released efficiently.
Some foods boost neurotransmission (we talk about this a little bit in our Why Most Diet Plans Suck, and Rarely Work article), however, others, such as artificial sweeteners, high-mercury fish, refined sugars, and many snack foods have been confirmed to degrade our mental health, and cause depression and anxiety.
What Foods Are Good For Mental Health?
Certain nutrients have been linked to brain health more than others. We explore this in more detail in our free, upcoming ebook—Brain Power Breakfast Recipes—but let’s take a quick look at some of these nutrients now, starting with Omega 3 fatty acids.
Omega 3 fatty acids. Found in oily fish, walnuts, and flax and chia seeds, this awesome nutrient is said to be the building block for healthy brain development.
Vitamin D. Although this vitamin is formed using UVB rays (daylight), it can also be found in foods such as eggs, whole milk, cheese, oats, and orange juice.
B-vitamins. Although research on the link between B-vitamins and mental health is still ongoing, it’s suggested that whole grains, seafood, meat, eggs, legumes, and lovely leafy greens have been linked to a decrease in stress, anxiety, and depression.
Tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that can be found in numerous protein sources, including turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, and dark leafy greens.
Selenium. Healthy foods such as walnuts, brazil nuts, shiitake mushrooms, turkey and chicken breast, spinach, and brown rice are all excellent ways to consume this antioxidant-rich nutrient that’s linked to an improvement in mental health.
Drinking more fluids (water or unsweetened herbal tea) is one of the most underrated natural remedies for mild feelings of depression. Not only is staying hydrated important for our physical health, but it’s also essential for optimum mental health. 85% of our brain tissues are made up of water, so dehydration = a poorly functioning brain.
In two studies conducted at the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory, results showed that even mild dehydration can affect cognition, mood, and the ability to think clearly. Drinking 6-8 glasses of water a day was shown to significantly reduce irritation, fatigue, reasoning, depression, and productivity.
SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a very common type of depression that haunts about one third of us during the darker seasons when there are fewer hours of daylight. As a result of less daylight (or staying inside too much), we’re exposed to fewer UVB rays (which help our bodies create vitamin-D), bringing on a bout of the blues.
Even when there’s no sun 🌥, exposing ourselves to daylight, even in the coldest months, can really improve our mood. While it’s tempting to lock ourselves indoors when it’s cold, grey, and miserable, this only adds to our somber mood 😔.
We can also eat a diet rich in vitamin-D foods, such as fatty fish, cheese, and eggs. For major cases of SAD, vitamin-D supplements are effective as well.
Light therapy may also be an option (this is when you have an SAD lamp that simulates natural light, which many have claimed to be quite effective). Light therapy also boosts serotonin, and improves sleep by resetting circadian rhythm and regulating melatonin.
Spiritualists have observed meditation—literally—for centuries. Whether you do it on your morning commute, during your lunch break, before you drift off to sleep at night, or all of the above, meditating is one of the most tried and tested natural antidepressants, and it only requires (at least) 10 minutes of your time every day.
No equipment is necessary, although apps like Headspace or the award-winning Calm app have a huge repertoire of relaxing sounds and meditation masterclasses. Meditation only requires silence and comfort, so that you can think and breathe.
A study conducted by Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Sara Lazar found that those who meditate have a more resilient prefrontal cortex—this is the most developed area of the human brain, and it affects our emotions and reasoning. A weakened prefrontal cortex impairs our decision making, limits our thinking strength, and reduces control over our own emotions, making us more susceptible to stress, anxiety, and/or depression.
Exercise…urgh 😅. Exercise isn’t fun for a lot of us, but the way it makes us feel afterward has a huge impact on our mental health in both the long and short term.
Exercise releases endorphins, which are chemicals that activate the body’s opiate receptors, therefore having an analgesic (i.e. pain relieving) effect on the body. These endorphins create a euphoric feeling after exercise, commonly known as the “runner’s high”, and this in turn reduces stress, anxiety, and feelings of depression.
Studies have found that aerobic exercise (running, cycling, walking, or swimming) can be just as effective as antidepressants at treating some mental disorders.
Depression, anxiety, stress—these feelings can be extremely crippling, and in many cases, there is no cure or quick fix. Prescription medications can be an effective combatant, however as abysmal mental health continues to become more widespread, it’s clear that the lifestyle choices of modern society (crappy food, lack of exercise, inadequate sleep, too much screen time, and so on) are the underlying issue.
“You must be the change you want to see in the world” ~ Mahatma Gandhi.
Rebeka Bergin is the founder of Nomad Noms. A digital nomad finding ways to stay happy and healthy while traveling around the world, her hobbies include cooking, eating out, discovering new cuisines, watching horror flicks and reading fantasy novels.