How to eat yourself happier…
Making small, steady changes in your eating habits is important for your general health and will also help to improve your mood:
Eat regular meals, especially breakfast
- Stable blood sugar levels help to stabilise mood and prevent cravings. Eating regular healthy meals and snacks also boosts the metabolism, ensuring that energy is used effectively.
- The ideal pattern is to eat breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, late afternoon snack, dinner and late night snack.
- It might help to complete a few daily meal plans initially until the habit is established.
Choose positive mood foods
- Tryptophan is an amino acid essential for the production of serotonin, which is the brain chemical which helps regulate mood. It is found in poultry, oil-rich fish, beans, baked potatoes, oats, nuts and seeds.
- Carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals are needed to help uptake of serotonin in the brain. So eat healthy (whole food) carbohydrates together with the protein foods.
- Ideas for snacks include a handful of nuts and raisins, peanut butter on wholemeal bread, or fruit with seeds or yoghurt.
- A healthy complex carb supper or late night snack can be useful for helping to fall asleep.
- Ensuring adequate and balanced consumption of omega-3 and -6 oil is beneficial for general health as well as mood. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in many vegetable oils, including soybean, safflower, corn, sunflower, flax and walnut oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in flaxseeds, hemp, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and oily cold-water fish.
Avoid crash dieting or over-restrictive eating habits
Along with increased exercise, the healthy eating patterns described above could help with weight regulation as well as depression. Crash dieting sets up its own downward spiral contributing to the depression habit spiral:
Self-denial and obsessive dieting → low mood, depression, worry etc → binge/comfort eating → guilt, upset, self-hate → self-denial/obsessive dieting… and so on.
Be aware of medication side effects
Check with your doctor about how any medication might affect your appetite or food choices. Some anti-depressants react with certain foods, some increase appetite and some reduce it. Be extra vigilant about all the above strategies when on medication.
Check for any depressed thinking habits
Unrealistic perfectionism about body image and all-or-nothing approaches to eating are very common in first-world consumer cultures. Use the strategies for challenging depressed thinking to make sure such habits aren’t contributing to depression-inducing eating habits. Making sure you do enough physical activity and exercise is a healthier and more effective way to address body issues than being rigid with food.
Reversing the depression habit spiral
Exercise raises the levels of endorphins (a mood chemical) in your brain, giving feelings of pleasure and raising mood. It also contributes to a sense of achievement. Exercise therefore helps to address the depression habit spiral at the biological and the psychological level. If you exercise with friends or meet new people that way, then it can also help at the social level.
Exercise should be enjoyable; it should not be undertaken in a punishing or over-exerting way. Respect your body by warming up and down well and being gentle with yourself.
What exercise did you used to enjoy? What could you do with the support and company of others? Why not try something new, or build exercise into your daily routine by walking instead of catching the bus?
Good depression-busting exercise ideas
Easy and cheap, can be fitted in to daily routines. Especially good when done in pleasant outdoor surroundings, but even 5 minutes around the block can make a difference. Can be enjoyable to share with someone else. Some people find it motivating to carry a pedometer to monitor how many steps they take each day and set themselves targets.
Yoga or Pilates
Gentle, non-competitive exercise. Teaches breathing and relaxation techniques, useful for managing stress or anger levels, sorting out sleep patterns and generally raising mood levels. Often offered at university sports centres.
Can include vigorous or gentler, more relaxing elements. Immersion in water can be very soothing. Choose a time when the pool isn’t too busy, so that you can go at your own pace and benefit from the relaxation effects as well as the exercise.
Any team sport, especially if undertaken for fun and socialising purposes. Check at your students union for clubs.
Gentler martial arts which focus on internal control, breathing and mental discipline can be especially useful for combating depressed thinking and improving relaxation skills.
The green gym concept is about exercising in a constructive way by participating in organised outdoor, ‘green’ projects such as tree planting or dry stone walling. See ‘More resources’ for info or see if your student union offers suitable volunteering opportunities.
Exercise has been shown to be as effective as medication in treating depression – it is a very powerful habit to develop, and a key ingredient in the recipe for a happy and healthy life. If you find a way to make exercise part of what you do for fun, rather than as a chore, then you will be well on the way to making it a lifelong habit.
You could even add to this powerful effect if you also build in a greater sense of purpose to your exercise habit – for example, by training for a fun run or a trekking challenge in order to raise money to support a charity you care about. See the Support Us page for more about how others have supported Students Against Depression in this way.
Checking alcohol and drugs
Using alcohol or other drugs to ‘self-medicate’ stress and emotional problems is a widely accepted part of student (and wider) culture, but can often cause problems. Realistic strategies for addressing problematic alcohol and drug use are an important strategy for combating depression.
Making it worse not better
Do you self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, including nicotine or overuse of caffeine? If so, you know you’re not alone! Heavy alcohol use, in particular, is entrenched in student and wider UK culture. This creates a win-win situation for depression – excessive alcohol and drug consumption is likely to make you feel worse not better, and a recent study of UK students showed that not drinking can also lead to isolation and depression. Even low-level drugs, like nicotine and caffeine, can contribute to depression by making sleep problems worse.
Small quantities of alcohol do initially briefly lift mood levels BUT larger amounts of alcohol tend to have a chemically depressive effect. Our bodies learn to tolerate alcohol, so greater and greater quantities are needed to provide the brief mood lift.
When heavy alcohol use is seen as ‘normal’ some of the real dangers are less recognised. Heavy alcohol consumption comes with many other risks in addition to depression:
- Alcohol is known to compromise judgement. Have you ever noticed how opinions become more extreme when drunk? In other words, alcohol makes you more prone to all-or-nothing and other types of depressed thinking.
- Alcohol loosens inhibitions and increases impulsivity, raising the risk that someone might impulsively enact suicidal thoughts or behave in other self-harming or risky ways.
Drinking heavily to try to get to sleep makes things worse, because alcohol disrupts quality sleep and makes sleep problems worse in the long run. Alcohol can also interact unfavourably with antidepressant medication.
Drug use is built into cultural practices through rituals such as tea and coffee drinking – and heavy use is increasingly promoted through caffeine-based ‘soft’ drinks. Even these culturally-accepted drugs can potentially contribute to depression, through their effect on sleep. Similarly, in addition to the obvious long-term health risks, nicotine disrupts healthy sleep.
Cannabis has an outdated reputation as a relatively ‘safe’ drug, yet there is increasing evidence that cannabis use can trigger psychotic episodes and severe mental illness for some people. Heavy cannabis use can lead to loss of drive and motivation, irritability, insomnia, reduced appetite, anxiety problems and depression. Even with mild use, cannabis tends to intensify whatever mood the person is in – which is not great when you’re affected by depression!
Besides the obvious perils of addiction, heavy use of other drugs such as opioids (heroin etc), amphetamines (and related drugs), cocaine, ecstasy and LSD all have potential risks in withdrawal of lowering of mood and triggering depression, as well as of suicidal thoughts.
It is not possible to predict whether or when you might experience withdrawal effects, but if you are already affected by depression, especially suicidal thoughts, then these drugs are obviously especially risky.
When heavy drinking or drug taking is a cultural norm and there is a lot of pressure to conform, then not participating can be isolating – another contribution to depression.
Unless you have a serious addiction problem or your doctor has advised abstinence there is no need to be all-or-nothing about it – just make realistic goals for cutting down your consumption:
- There is no need to stop socialising! It can help to broaden your social activities – try to engage in some social activities which do not involve alcohol or drugs.
- On a night out, give yourself a budget for the night and only take that amount of cash with you.
- Stick with friends who do not pressurise each other too much and get your friends to support you in cutting down (you don’t have to give your reasons).
- If necessary work on building up new, constructive friendships and support networks.
- As a general strategy, you may want to take a step back and evaluate what role drug and alcohol habits play in student and wider culture and whether you wish to continue to sign up to the values this perpetuates.
Get help for addiction
If you do feel that you may have a problem with addiction, seek professional help from a specialist drug and alcohol agency (your doctor or counselling service can advise).
Depression feeds off stress. Managing our stress better is one of the key things we can do to keep depression at bay. And the foundation for managing stress levels is knowing how to relax.
Start practising now
It is very easy to start mastering the skill of relaxation if you practise. Don’t wait until you feel especially stressed or low before you try it for the first time. The key is to do a bit of practice every day so that when you need it your body knows what to do without thinking too hard.
Step 1: Do you know how to breathe?
Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? But proper deep breathing is the foundation of relaxation, and something many of us hardly ever do! Knowing how to ‘take a deep breath’ is not just about distracting yourself from something stressful. Deep breathing cuts straight into any downward stress spirals at a biological level, feeding our brains with the right mix of gases to be able to think more clearly and take control of ourselves.
A simple breathing exercise
- Pause and draw your attention to your breathing for a few breaths.
- When you are ready, consciously breathe in slowly through your nose feeling the breath travel right down your body and pushing out your belly (put your hand on your belly to feel it rise).
- Then release the breath even more slowly through your nose.
- Do 10 more breaths like this counting to at least 3 or 4 on the in-breath and 6 or 7 on the out breath.
Step 2: Practise every day
Practise this deep breathing at least once a day. A good time is right after you get up in the morning, but you can do it anywhere anytime.
Step 3: Add a tension-reducing exercise
Once you’re comfortable with regular deep breathing practice, build in a conscious tension-reducing exercise. Use the simple exercise here, or use a recording (see below).
- While breathing comfortably, focus on each part of your body in turn, from toes to forehead.
- Tense each group of muscles hard and then release them.
- This can be done lying down on your back, or sitting comfortably in a chair with your back supported.
- You can also just focus on one group of muscles, like your shoulders and neck.
Step 4: Use your imagination
While doing these breathing and muscle-relaxing exercises, you can also use your imagination to fill your mind with calm, soothing imagery.
What usually works best is to go in your mind to your choice of beautiful natural scenes, wherever you would feel comfortable and at peace – perhaps on a quiet beach at sunset, or beside a babbling brook.
Step 5: Choose other techniques to suit you
Once you have included the basic relaxation techniques into your daily habits, you can build on them in whatever ways are most appealing to you. Some ideas include:
- Relaxation recordings
These have someone talking you through relaxation, muscle-relaxing and visualisation exercises. You could make your own relaxation recording by reading these scripts onto an mp3 or similar.
Self-hypnosis uses deep relaxation techniques to make your mind more suggestible to positive messages. You can get self-hypnosis tapes to focus on a wide range of issues, including general relaxation, helping you get to sleep, anger management, anxiety control and so on.
- Yoga, Pilates or some martial arts
Yoga and other such classes are a good place to learn and practise breathing and muscle-relaxing techniques, as well as providing a very good form of relaxing exercise.
Some yoga and martial arts teaching can include meditation techniques, or you can get special classes or books to teach you. Meditation does not have to have anything to do with religion. It is simply a way of training the mind to empty itself of thoughts. This can be very useful when your internal running commentary is caught up in depressed thinking. (See ‘Practising mindfulness’ for more)
- Having a ‘quiet time’
Often depression makes you fearful of quiet, alone time, as this can be the time when the depressed thoughts crowd in and are particularly bothersome. But keeping yourself constantly busy and occupied can also leave you stressed and tired. As you get better at challenging depressed thinking, it is worth building in a positive ‘quiet time’ each day or at least each week, when you plan a quiet, soothing activity on your own.This could include a long pampering bath, listening to mellow music with the lights dim, or going for a gentle walk in natural surroundings.
Avoid damaging ways to ‘chill’
Do your usual methods of relaxation fit in with what you’ve learnt on this page? Make sure you aren’t being misled by unhelpful ways to ‘chill out’ like relying on alcohol or drugs, watching too much mindless telly, or listening to depressing music. Remember that active relaxation methods, such as exercise or pursuit of an engaging creative or purposeful task, are also very effective.