We're more aware than ever of anxiety and depression. Despite this, billions of people across the globe suffer from one, or both. But you don't need to be doomed to feel gloomy for the rest of your days. More and more, experts are finding the impact of lifestyle choices on our mood. So let's look at some ways that these can help you feel better, and trust us, they are so simple, you'll wonder why you didn't try them before.
What happens when we're anxious or depressed
So why do we feel anxious or depressed? First, we need to understand the biology behind these feelings.
Many people describe the conditions of anxiety and depression as a 'brain chemical imbalance'. And on one level, this is true. Our experience of emotion depends on the brain, and the neurotransmitters, or chemicals, it releases. So therefore, depression and anxiety are caused by issues in the balance. But often, there is much more to the picture than this.
Digestive health, nutritional status, hormone balance and many other factors come into play. Anything that can affect the function of your brain could potentially cause symptoms of anxiety or depression.
These factors can also explain why someone with a family history of anxiety or depression doesn't experience it. They may be in better health overall, protecting their brain. It may also explain why someone with no family history experiences a severe case – they may have issues with all of the other factors.
Of course, there are times when these are inevitable to experience. Feeling sad at a funeral or anxious in the run-up to a major test or interview is perfectly normal. It's when these feelings paralyze you, or impact on your ongoing well-being, that it becomes an issue.
The dangers of depression and anxiety
Many people might think that depression and anxiety are harmless, as they're 'all in your head'. But health professionals know it's a very different story. Depression and anxiety can seriously impact on your health and quality of life.
Things that may help
The good news is, you're not completely powerless. Even if you feel helpless at the moment, small changes can make a big difference. Here are some lifestyle tweaks that can help relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Get your dose of sunshine
Have you ever noticed that you feel better with a dose of sunshine? It's definitely not all in your head. Sunshine is a great way to use nature as therapy.
We know that sunshine offers vitamin D. Vitamin D can boost immune health and is a pre-cursor for many hormones. So getting sufficient vitamin D may help alleviate mood issues.
However, there is more to it than this. By getting daylight exposure, we can reset our circadian rhythms. These rhythms need to be optimal so we know when to eat, sleep and wake. Circadian rhythms may play a role in mood, as they impact on the release of neurotransmitters and hormones.
Check your breathing
Have you noticed when you're worried, you breathe more rapidly? There's a reason for that. Your body is reacting to your stress by amping up your nervous system. But you can use this to your advantage, and reverse the message.
By focusing on your breathing, and slowing it down, you can tell your brain that the danger has passed. So try this simple exercise to calm your body from the inside out.
Start by taking a few breaths that are just a little longer than your current breath pattern. You don't want to make yourself dizzy!
Then, breathe in for 4 counts. Hold your breath for 2 counts. And exhale for 4 counts. Pause for 2 counts, before beginning again.
Extend this slowly until you reach 8 counts in and out, and 4 counts for holding. Then, return to a natural breath. It will be much slower now, and you should feel calmer.
When you experience symptoms of depression or anxiety, it's easy to get caught up in your thoughts. But often, the thoughts will just cause a spiral further down. One concern can become many – a mountain out of a molehill.
That's why it's best to jump in at the start and prevent the spiral. And that's where mindfulness practices can help.
By observing your thoughts, you can realize that they are just that – thoughts. Once you know that they are only thoughts, you can choose to change them, or just question them.
This will take a lot of practice. But just try it each time you find yourself experiencing symptoms. Over time, you'll become better at shifting your perspective.
Move your body – however you can
When you're miserable, the last thing you want to do is exercise. But exercise is one of the best therapies for your body and your brain.
When you move your body, you release endorphins, which are feel-good hormones. This gives you a temporary boost. But you also help reduce stress hormone levels in your body. Less stress definitely makes for a happier, healthier you.
Research supports all types of movement for relieving mood-related symptoms. So whether you want to zen out with some yoga, or sweat it out in the gym, just move. Even including more incidental movement throughout your day can add up over time.
Seek professional help
At the end of the day, we can't do everything ourselves. If you are feeling completely overwhelmed by your emotions, aren't coping, or are considering self-harm, it's time to reach out.
There are plenty of options for anonymous help lines and websites if you feel ashamed or embarrassed. Your doctor may be able to set up a care plan for you to make things more affordable. The important thing to remember is that you're never alone. There's always help if you need it.
Of course there is no guarantee that these things will magically fix you overnight. Healing the body takes time. However, if it gives you a little relief each day, it makes it worthwhile. Just take each day step by step.