Guest contribution from Dr. Thara Vayali
Is it normal? Is it the weather? Or is there more to it? Many of us know sadness well, as it is a core emotion we all experience during our lives. Sadness is a natural and healthy emotion but there are situations when sadness doesn’t quite the fit the role. At times, an extended low mood lies on the spectrum of depression. Anxiety and depression diagnosis are the most prevalent of all psychiatric diagnoses, but exactly why it triggers in one person is still unknown. Depression can be influenced by genetics, hormones, neurotransmitters, stressors, medications, illness, lifestyle, and dietary habits, and this list is not exhaustive. The most effective management approach is multi-pronged, takes time and commitment and requires support from friends and family. It is crucial to long-term mental health to ask for and receive assistance in managing this situation. At any given time, almost three million Canadians have serious depression, yet only one-third will seek out help. Dropping the negative stigma of depression and its treatment is key to building a healthy society.
Outside of classic forms of depression, there are other ways that depression can manifest; one of which is SAD. SAD is a medical term for Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is the onset of depressive symptoms that follow a seasonal pattern; generally winter. The symptoms are specific to the change in daylight hours and circadian rhythm disruptions.
For the purposes of this article, I’d like to reuse that acronym for one specific factor influencing depression – SAD: Stressed And Depressed.
All other factors notwithstanding, our stress response has a major impact on our emotions and vice versa. If we can identify how our emotions and stress work together in our lives, we can gain a sense of strength over one factor of depression.
The emotions of depression that can underlie the stressors we feel:
- Social Defeat
Stress & Depression often end up looking like this:
The stress causes:
It shows up as:
|Exhaustion from insomnia or difficulty getting up in the morning||“I’ve got so much to do”, “I can’t stop thinking about it”, “I have nothing left to give”|
|Loss of libido & inability to experience pleasure||Fatigue, self-criticism and outward cynicism|
|Unmanaged pressure at home/work||Working longer/procrastinating to avoid triggers of emotional distress.|
|The chronic or under-acknowledged pain gets better when relaxed.||“My back/gut hurts and painkillers don’t help”|
|Declining self worth||Avoiding social engagements despite desire to connect.|
|Needing an outlet to blow off steam or to numb feelings.||Risk taking behaviour, alcohol & drug use|
|Fear/Grief/Shame||Under-eating or Overeating|
Catching these signs of unrelenting stress can give us a little leverage in breaking the negative cycle. When you notice yourself sliding into these statements or habits on a regular basis, you have a chance to change your situation, statement or behaviour consciously, before the groove of SAD wears too deeply on the system.
5 ways to beat SAD (Stressed And Depressed)
Make lists and use schedulers/calendars – Every evening, make one list with timed ‘To-Do’s’ for the next day and one larger ‘To Remember To Do Eventually’. Put ‘To Do’s’ with due dates into a calendar with alerts. Take the time to get your stressors out of your head and on to something you can look at later. By externalizing and crossing off your daily list, your self worth grows and your mind can let go.
Stock up on sleep skills: Once you can trust that you have downloaded your stressors elsewhere, initiate a timeout on digital technology (bright light, phones, television). All these decrease the sleep time and quality, regardless of when you get into bed. A key piece of managing stress and depression is restorative sleep, which is distinct from long hours of unrestful sleep. Make sure you are generally falling asleep at an hour that gives you eight hours until you wake. Establish calming bedtime routines for the 45 minutes before this. Make sure the room is dark. Invest in a wake-up lamp or timed dimmer switch (the light slowly increases over 30 minutes before your desired wake time). If pain is an issue for you, work with a professional on what is causing it and how to manage it. If sleep is a major issue, stop consuming caffeine after noon, and work on keeping day sleeping to a minimum. Sleep is your body’s natural stress reset.
Engage with people who supported you. It’s important to have a community that can accept and appreciate the many sides of your personality. This includes allowing space for the stressors and depression to exist. When we feel truly heard an ease develops so that discussion can develop about subjects beyond the stressor. If you socialize primarily through alcohol and/or drugs, you may be avoiding true sensations and inhibiting the shift out of SAD. Look to build relationships with people that can understand your stressors without enabling negative patterns.
Commit to eating regular healthy meals. Under stress, hunger signals are often off-base and can worsen the spiral of mood and stress response. Stop to slowly savour the beginning of one meal per day. Take in the colour, smell, texture, taste and sound of those first few bites. Mindful eating can sometimes be the first step in settling the system and developing a rhythm for the day.
Move your body: Whether that is doing hourly squats in your home/office or going for more a vigorous activity at lunch, get your blood circulating and endorphins flooding by accomplishing your activity. It doesn’t need to be big, but it needs to be challenging enough that you feel good about your ambition. Take comparison out of the picture. Pick an attainable goal and let it be fueled by your inner cheering squad.
Being mindful of how you eat, sleep, move, connect and process is part of the stress and depression cycle. These factors are interwoven and are often overlooked as tools for change. The first step is identifying if your actions are on the slippery slope of stress and depression. The next step is slowing down to see what’s making you SAD. The most empowering tool in this situation is proactive mindfulness. Stop. Feel. Listen. Change.
Dr. Thara Vayali is a Naturopathic Doctor & Yoga Teacher in Vancouver and is also a UBC alumnus. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. She is the creator of Change Natural Medicine: Budget conscious, membership-based health consulting.