March 29, 2011

The 5 percent Solution for Depression.

Update: Moderate exercise not only treats, but prevents depression: This is the first longitudinal review to focus exclusively on the role that exercise plays in maintaining good mental health and preventing the onset of depression later in life (media.utoronto.ca)

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors: Who would pass up the opportunity of saying that mouthful on a regular basis?

Well, okay, anybody who isn’t a biochemistry nerd would.

But in case you don’t know, it’s a class of drug that throws some light in the amazing ways in which the brain works…and helps anyone immobilized by a clinical depression start to function like a normal person.

Now, I’m a yoga teacher, and yoga teachers are known for pushing holistic solutions, not psychotropic drugs.

But what if you suffered from a crippling depression because the chemicals your brain cells use to communicate with one another aren’t working—as in, a cell sends a message to its neighboring cell, and the latter doesn’t have the ability to read it before the chemicals used for sending the message are recycled?

Serotonin is one of those messenger chemicals; re-uptake refers to the process where a cell reabsorbs the chemicals it used for communicating with the next one, and selectively inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin, as much of a mouthful as that is, means that the serotonin gets to float between those cells a lot longer, thereby giving the next cell much more of a chance to get the message.

And when it gets the message, a funny thing happens: you aren’t depressed any more.

The yoga teacher in me wants someone who’s depressed not to take a pill but to breathe more, to move more, to sleep better and to get a lot more nurturing. But that’s because, while I have been depressed during certain phases in my life, I have never been clinically depressed, which is something vastly different. We’re talking about feeling like you’re in a hole you can never hope to claw your way out of. We’re talking feeling so down that the thought of rising from bed feels overwhelming. We’re talking a complete inability to take care of oneself.

We’re talking not wanting to go on living.

So I humbly take off my hat to those folks who experience that, and say that while I would hold your hand and try to give you uplifting tools, I would have no idea what the hell I was doing, and might do more harm than good with my good intentions. Those folks might only begin to get some breathing room and apply the tools I have once they have in their system some SSRI’s or whatever latest wonder drug exists to balance brain chemistry.

Now, if your significant other just left you, or you’ve awakened to the realization your life is the manure that ought to be fertilizing someone’s lawn, or you haven’t been called back for the job you so desperately wanted and knew were perfectly suited for, then that’s a run-of-the-mill depression, and for that, may I submit for your consideration The 5% Solution.

“5% Solution” stems from the fact that whenever I suggested something to a dear friend of mine who suffers from occasional bouts of depression, she would say, “Yeah, I tried that for a while, and it didn’t work” – and I came to realize that yes, one single thing may not work long-term, but it may be 5% of the answer…which, together with a bunch of other 5 percents, might amount to the active self-nurturing that tip the scales to the good side. And if on the one hand depression is a vicious circle where you feel diminishing ability for self-nurturing, on the other hand success with the behaviors of self-nurturance (even small successes) can snowball into transcending the depression.

For these two reasons (not one single thing is likely to pull anyone up from depression; and small successes will tend to reinforce each other), here are the bunch of 5% steps that consistently applied tip the scales in your favor:

5% using a dawn simulator to wake up slowly and naturally in the morning
This makes a significant difference compared to the drawn-out grogginess and adrenalin-induced grumpiness that can go with waking up to an alarm.

5% using a neti pot daily to enhance how much oxygen you take in through clear sinuses
Breathing well (and, specifically, breathing through the nose), makes for a significantly calmer mind and more level mood, not to mention higher innate energy levels.

5% getting active exercise – preferably in the morning or by midday, but any exercise at all is good
For a host of biochemical reasons, exercise alone can overcome a lot of physical and mental problems. The best kind of exercise to engage in? One that you actually enjoy.

5% flossing, brushing, showering, all that good stuff
This is in the category of the obvious, but beyond the slight mood uplift of not smelling or feeling like a tramp, it also keeps a bunch of pathogens at bay, which don’t further tax an immune system that’s already struggling to stay in the game

5% drinking 8 glasses of water a day
Yadda yadda yadda. Everybody talks about this for health and better skin, right? I don’t have hard evidence for this, but I believe that an abundance of water literally has the ability to clear emotions in the body. Do taper off around 6 p.m. for better sleep. Oh, yeah, and for the people who always ask – it really does mean water, not coffee or beer.

5% eating small, balanced, frequent meals (every 4 hours, starting within one hour of waking up), avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates to maintain evenness of mood
For anyone who hasn’t noticed, sugar and refined carbs are a huge contributing factor to mood fluctuation. Have steady quality food (you know, food that actually feeds you), and you remove one important source of imbalance.

5% eating new, interesting things
Think tastebud-titillating flavors like the Thai coconut and lemon grass soup known as Tom Kah, yam fries, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi – anything that feels new and exotic to the tastebuds and gives you something to look forward to on a daily basis has mood-enhancing capacities.

5% eating foods that are known to have anti-depressant qualities
Chillies, jalapeno peppers as well as spices of Thai, Indian, and/or Asian provenance not only have antioxidant qualities, but they stimulate the release of the very brain chemicals that raise your mood.

5% spending time somewhere where there are trees and grass
Forget about “spending time in nature” – it brings up thoughts of plans and clearing time in your schedule and all those other things that always get postponed. A 15-minute break spent outside at the nearest park every day will do. More if time permits.

5% daily solitude
Some people need this more than others as a means of collecting their thoughts and emotions and feeling grounded. It might be five minutes in the bedroom or it might be a 90-minute walk by the water – reset and replenish with the right amount and you’ll find that solitude is a solace for the soul. Alliteration and all.

5% immersion in beautiful or awe-inspiring things
A friend of mine loves astronomy magazines, exhibits or TV programs – the universe in all its grandeur brings out that awe. But it could be holding a baby. Or watching gigantic clouds move above. Or seeing athletes play at the edge of human ability. Or becoming lost in dance. Or feeling a piece of music intensely. Or walking amid larger-than-life statues at a museum. Experiencing, acknowledging and recognizing awe-inspiring things that shift around often enough (so as not to become desensitized to them) can change your experience from “just getting by” to “there is a lot of beauty in life.”

5% keeping objects around you that bring you pleasure to touch, smell or see
A pleasantly-shaped stone, a candle, a seashell, a vase, a bottle of perfume, a ring, a wallet crafted just so, a pen with perfectly-balanced weight, a cup you love – it need not be anything fancy, just a close-by touchstone to remind you of your personal connection to beauty.

5% dancing and/or playing
Think 5-year-old kid here. Most people lose or forget their ability to play when they reach adulthood. But 5, 10, 20 minutes a day dancing or playing for its own sake decreases the adrenal hormones associated with stress and releases a plethora of other ones that regenerate your body and mind. For this to work, you must enjoy the play tremendously: 20 minutes of minesweeper on the computer doesn’t count unless it transports you to the rapturous levels of excitement that prompt your co-workers to ask if you’re feeling okay.

5% getting into a story you enjoy
Whether through reading or listening or film-viewing, becoming immersed in someone else’s story adds a break and fresh perspective to life. I suggest sticking with fiction for best results. Humor doesn’t hurt either. And if you don’t feel like reading anything humorous right now, well, go ahead and pick up that suspense novel. No, not the one with the high body count – that’s not going to uplift you and renew your faith in the human condition.

5% taking a step (any step) daily toward a long-term plan; or, if you can’t think of anything, help someone every day – a friend, a stranger, an animal.
These are two ways in which life acquires meaning: working towards a goal, and making a difference in someone’s life if through no other way than making them feel seen, heard, or cared for.

5% connecting with friends
To state the obvious, any challenges become more bearable when shared with people who care about you. (Have a Twitter or Facebook account? You’ve got this covered… not.) And while a text message, email or phone call are better than nothing, in-person interaction with friends or family who see, hear and care about you increase tenfold that sense of connection.

5% being held
That effect of lowering stress hormones while raising health-promoting ones isn’t just the realm of playing. Hug often and the results are the same. If you don’t have a significant other, hug friends when you see them. If you’ve never been one to do that and your coworkers are now dodging you in the hallways, you can say you were adopted and just discovered your birth parents are Italian… Seriously, though, if you’re not a touchy-feely type of person, or you feel awkward with hugging people, you can always hold a dog, or a cat, or a baby… or your pet hippopotamus.

5% sex
This one’s a little tricky. Sex tends to magnify whatever emotions we already have – meaning that if you’re happy, it’ll reinforce the happiness, but if you’re feeling down, there’s the chance that it may open you up to further sadness. Then again, it may just open you up to release emotions and eventually let them dissolve. If being close to someone is hard the way you feel now (or it’s tied up with conflicting emotions), it might be better to fly solo, as they euphemistically say, before adding the many emotional variables of having someone else be part of the equation.

5% having a pre-bedtime routine of 30 minutes
No, we’re not talking the evening news (Everything Bad Around The World Today). Nor are we talking meditation – we wouldn’t want to suggest something as radical as that, would we, now? No, for a pre-bedtime routine it’s some very gentle yoga, or quiet contemplation with the lights turned off, or lying down with some guided visualizations or gentle relaxation movements.

5% a consistent bedtime with plenty of time (say, 9 hours) before needing to rise again
A bedtime that stays consistent even in the weekends lets the body become accustomed to produce on schedule the chemicals that enhance sleep. And having a leisurely-allocated 9 hours, whether you ultimately use them or not, will virtually guarantee that you will feel well-rested by the time your dawn simulator goes off.

So there it is – one 5% step at a time.

The idea is not to try one or two cherry-picked ones and see how it goes. Rather, the idea is to do all of them daily, allowing for variability in their success. So long as 75, 80 or 85% of them work, they will yield steady improvement in mood and a more balanced of being and of feeling.

And while it may look as though doing these 20 things daily would require a lot of time, many lend themselves to combining – for instance, solitude and a pre-bed-time routine of yoga/relaxation; or being in nature while connecting with friends; or exercising through dancing. Once they become second nature, they require no more time than waking up to the dawn simulator. And, as anyone who’s ever been depressed can tell you, they certainly eat up a lot less time and energy than being depressed.

All right, I think I’ve earned the right to go play minesweeper for at least 2 hours. Ooops. You didn’t hear me say that, did you?



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