5 activities to help manage depression

5 activities to help manage depression

Most people feel sad or depressed at some point in their lives. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 350 million people suffer from depression worldwide. Although it is a common illness and often goes unnoticed, the fact is that this mental disorder needs treatment.

The following activities offer some ideas to help ease depression and get a person heading down the path to a positive future:

1. Exercise

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 6.7 percent of adults in the United States experience depression. Although medication is generally used to treat this mental disorder, research has shown that regular exercise can not only have physical benefits, but also help reduce depression and general mental wellbeing (The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed, Lynette L. Craft, Ph.D. and Frank M. Perna, Ed.D., Ph.D.). Apart from reducing symptoms of depression, exercise has also been shown to be as effective as medication and psychotherapy. This means running or walking for 20 minutes three times a week is enough to improve depression.

Of course, other types of exercise are just as beneficial, so feel free to try any exercise that interests you, even nonaerobic exercise like weight or flexibility training.

Why does it work?

  • It releases endorphins, which often associate with more positive moods and mental states.
  • People who are depressed have low levels of positive neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all of which have been found to increase after exercise.
  • It takes one’s mind away from brooding thoughts and gives a person something else to focus on instead of depression.
  • Many people who have depression feel like they lack control in their lives. Exercising gives people a sense of power over their own bodies, enforcing the idea that they are capable and change is possible.

2. Meditation

People have practiced meditation for hundreds of years to find inner peace and balance, and now studies are confirming its benefits. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, titled “Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being,” showed that meditation could provide a mild or moderate aid in reducing depression. Additional studies have also shown that meditation may help prevent relapse as effectively as medication. An article in The Telegraph, reported that an Oxford University study found that meditation can be a drug-free alternative and can be as good as antidepressants.

Why does it work?

  • It brings mental focus to the body and the present moment. This may draw attention away from depressive thoughts.
  • It could help train the brain to think in a more positive way by letting regrets and anxiety go. It recognizes negative thoughts, but then urges people to move away from them.
  • In terms of what is going on in the brain, MRIs show less activity in the amygdala during meditation. This same area of the brain usually shows high activity in people who are experiencing depression.

3. Practice positive thinking

Depression is characterized by negative thoughts. The brain becomes accustomed to noticing the bad, and forgetting or overlooking the good things.

Break the pattern and retrain your brain to think more optimistically by writing down the positive things that happen every day and the things you are thankful for, even if they seem small. Feeling grateful and keeping a gratitude journal has proven psychological benefits. According to an article published in the Psychology Today (The Grateful Brain), focusing on being grateful leads to an increase in energy and optimism. People who thought about or wrote down things they were grateful for also reported reduced depression, exercised more and even slept better.

It may be hard for someone who is depressed to begin to notice those things, but just writing down being thankful for something as simple as a meal you ate that day, a person in your life, or even something that affected someone you love will get you going in the right direction.

Why does it work?

  • When people feel grateful, there is more brain activity in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates many basic functions such as hunger, sleep and mood. This could explain some of the positive benefits people experience after practicing gratitude.
  • It activates dopamine so you not only feel good, you are more likely to notice the things you’re thankful for again next time.
  • While just thinking about being thankful or telling someone thank you is enough to trigger the positive effects, keeping a journal makes positive thinking into a routine. This enforces the practice and creates a new habit to start replacing negative thoughts.

4. Interact with a pet

The responsibility of owning a pet might seem daunting for someone who is depressed, but taking care of and interacting with friendly animals, especially dogs, makes people feel happier and less lonely. While getting a pet might be a good idea for some, just regularly interacting with someone else’s can also help.

Why does it work?

  • Touching or petting an animal produces several hormones in the brain, all of which are associated with feeling happy and often lacking in people who are depressed, such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin.
  • Dogs seem to accept and love unconditionally, and being pack animals, they tend to stick by their human companions. Depression can also make someone feel lonely and isolated, and doubt their self-worth. Having a pet or engaging with an animal can lessen those feelings.
  • Pets usually demand attention, which can distract from depression.
  • Some pets promote physical activity, which has also been shown to combat depression.
  • Owning a pet means responsibility and routine, both of which could boost self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment.

5. Try something new

Happiness, joy and passion aren’t always intuitive, rather they involve a process of exploration. Although it’s difficult to imagine having fun when you’re depressed, it’s important to try new things. As Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Maybe the things you’ve been doing haven’t seemed to help, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. There are probably a lot of things you haven’t tried you might find interesting. Some activities that could help reduce depression in general are volunteering, reading or learning something new. Even if you don’t find your passion, trying new things has been shown to make people happier overall.

Why does it work?

  • Doing something new means making new memories. People who are active and participate in various activities throughout their lives tend to dwell more on positive emotions than negative ones.
  • Sometimes when people get used to an activity, it becomes easier and minds wander back to depressive thoughts. New activities mean having to focus to learn to do them.
  • It can lead to self-efficacy, making someone more confident and opening other possibilities for recovery.
  • It can break through a dull, predictable or boring routine to offer new kinds of stimulation, or new ways of thinking.

It’s important to remember while these activities can help reduce depression, they might not work for everyone, especially those with severe depression. When depressed, it can be difficult to find the motivation to do even one activity. If you or someone you know feels depressed it’s important to consult with a doctor to seek treatment. Contact the California Mental Health Helpline today to speak with a professional.