Today I feel inspired to share a more personal story with you. For most of my childhood, through early twenties, I struggled with depression. A number of physicians wanted to put me on antidepressants. I chose to avoid them, because I felt that I had some concrete reasons for feeling blue. But then that blue feeling continued.
In reflection, I can pinpoint a palpable change in my mood, energy, and perspective. It shifted in my mid-twenties. For most of my first 25 years of life, the timber of my memories contains a very Eor-esque atmosphere.
Three major factors created that positive change : diet, exercise, and trained perspective.
The biggest player in changing my mental and emotional state was diet. I’d have to say it accounts for 75% of my improved outlook on life. What changed?
I actually started eating more.
I grew up in the heroine-chic fashion era, where starvation dieting or low-fat, and fat-free dieting were the fad. Before the age of 25 years old, I skipped meals. I avoided snacking. I focused on calorie counting, and trying to lose weight by slashing calories. The result: I was hungry all the time, morose, and quite often hangry. Many of my college and high school friends can attest to my moments of hanger.
After I started seeing an acupuncturist that focused on nutrition in college, I slowly started to change my ways. It took some convincing, but I started eating three full meals a day, plus snacks. I ate full fat. I reintroduced butter into my diet. I ate tons of vegetables, and became very careful with sugar. Once I finally fed myself, I noticed that my emotions were more even keel, easier to sit with, and seemed to more appropriately fit the situation at hand.
Now my typical day includes:
- 80-100% home cooked meals
- 60-70% of my food is vegetable matter
- I eat a protein at every meal, and my morning snack often involves nuts or nut butter plus an apple or vegetable. Sometimes my afternoon snack is simply vegetables either fresh or baked into ‘chips.’
- I’m an omnivore, so I include animal protein in my diet, but a few days a week, I eat vegetarian.
- Sometimes I go grain free. Sometimes I eat 1-2 servings of grains in a day.
- I eat dessert 1-2 x a week, and sometimes skip it for the week. I do better with less sugar, including fruit sugars. I eat about 2-3 servings of fruit a day.
- But the two key factors are: I eat whole foods and I eat regularly throughout the day to keep my blood sugar regulated.
Simply moving in some way helped immensely. I’d always been an on again, off again athlete. My training would get derailed by regular sports injuries in high school (I attribute this to my dieting induced malnourishment).
Later I realized it didn’t matter whether it was walking, yoga, running, cycling, or tai qi, but movement on a consistent basis brightened my day. Consistency was key. Even on days that I felt exhausted or sluggish, if I overcame the the sluggish feeling to exercise, I was often left feeling energetic for the remainder of the day. Overtime, my overall energy improved.
3) Trained Perspective
I don’t mean chose to be happy. I mean paying attention to your inner monologue, learning from it, gently guiding it, and creating time for reflection and non-thinking.
First lets talk about the inner monologue. What is its flavor? Is there a lot of trash talking yourself? Is there a significant amount of pessimism? Or is it fairly balanced? The first step is noticing. If there is a hefty dose of negativity, the next step is to follow up those thoughts with something positive or think to yourself, ‘That’s not helpful’ or ‘That’s not what I really mean.’ This is what I mean by gentle guidance. Try to guide your thoughts toward positive reinforcement. Start talking to yourself like you would to one of your friends. This will slowly overtime steer your inner monologue towards a more supportive, nurturing, and happier direction.
Now let’s talk about non-thinking. Non-thinking is what I use to describe the goal of a mindfulness or meditation practice. Reflection and non-thinking are key factors in our mind’s ability to take in the quiet beauty that surrounds us, to feel connected with something bigger than ourselves, or even simply, to feel connected in our community. It also helps us experience unpleasant emotions in a productive and healthy way. Anger, sorrow, grief, anxiousness, worry, frustration, and fear are all natural, and often appropriate emotions. Learning to feel them, and learn from them is what helps us move through or past these emotions. Non-thinking helps us spend time with these uncomfortable emotions, while helping reconnect with the ability to experience awe and inspiration from the world around you.
This combo of training your inner monologue and allowing space to be inspired helps create a healthy mental space.
I’m not suggesting that these are the only answers to feeling depressed. These are the tools that over a few decades helped me to improve my mental well being. There were times in implementing these tactics taht it felt like climbing out of a deep, dark cave, but the struggle to exercise daily left me feeling slightly better each day. Eating regularly finally became the tool that helped me stay in a healthy state of mind.
Emotions come and go. Life continues to ebb and flow with abundant joys and unplanned losses. Meanwhile, my self care helps me to experience emotions that fit the situations arising in my life, move through them, and continue to feel the awe around me.
Give it a try. Remember consistency is key and eating regularly cannot be overrated.