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Help for depression — 7 daily tools to improve your mood

5 Jan 2021

If the pandemic or winter’s dark days have affected your mood, these simple tools have been shown to help day-to-day mental health

As we head further into winter — and the lockdowns and restrictions continue — more people than ever are succumbing to depression.

Depression affects around 264 million people worldwide. Latest UK figures show that almost 1 in 5 adults (19.2%) experienced depression during the coronavirus crisis in 2020 — a figure that almost doubled from around 1 in 10 (9.7%) before the pandemic. People most affected included younger adults aged 16-39 years, women, those with financial worries and people with disabilities.

‘There are many factors that may contribute to depression,’ says Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Psychotherapist at Livi. ‘But social isolation, lockdowns, money and health worries during the pandemic are further factors, causing more people to feel depressed.’

There are some simple, daily practices that science has shown may positively affect your mood, if you practice them regularly. Here’s a toolkit to get you started.

1. Find time to venture outside every day

‘Lack of sunlight can cause seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in some people,’ says Gauffin. ‘This is a type of recurring depression with a seasonal pattern.’ It’s not certain what causes SAD, but some theories suggest a lack of light in winter may affect mood-regulating chemicals in the brain. Typical symptoms include persistent low mood, irritability, feelings of despair, lack of energy, sleeping for longer than normal, craving carbohydrates and weight loss or gain.

Tools to use daily

  • Get as much daylight as possible. Even a short daily walk can be beneficial. Natural light is the most important cue for maintaining circadian rhythms (the body’s natural sleep/wake cycle). A lack of sunlight can throw this internal body clock out of sync and by affecting sleep and appetite, make symptoms worse
  • Spend time in nature. One study showed that just 10 minutes spent sitting or walking in a natural environment can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing

2. Get moving (and your heart pumping)

Exercise can support your mood if you have depression and is especially useful for people with mild to moderate depression.

This doesn’t have to mean sweating for hours. It could be as little as a daily 20-minute walk. According to a recent meta-analysis, exercising for a total of 150 minutes each week can reduce the risk of depression by a third.

‘Exercise is important if you’re feeling depressed,’ says Gauffin. ‘Moving physically has an energising effect,’ she explains. ‘The less you move, the more lethargic you feel. Try and do some exercise that gets you out of breath every day such as dancing, stretching, walking or running. If you find it hard to motivate yourself, arrange to meet a friend for a socially distanced walk.’

NHS recommends...

  • Each week, aim to do 150 minutes of moderate activity (like brisk walking, gardening, rollerblading) or
  • 75 minutes of intense activity (including jogging, aerobics, walking up the stairs) weekly or
  • A combination each week — to maintain your health

3. Connect with friends and family as often as you can

‘One of the reasons people are finding it hard to cope during the coronavirus crisis is because they can’t spend time with friends and family in the same way as they did before,’ says Gauffin.

A US study found that confiding in friends and social connection generally has a protective effect against depression (it also found that reducing time watching TV and napping in the day also help to lower depressive symptoms).

Tools to use daily

  • Talk to friends regularly on the phone or Zoom
  • If you don’t feel like talking, check in with friends over text
  • Join an online art, book or music club. Or, find a local mental health support group
  • See friends in person where possible, depending on the restrictions in your area

4. Avoid processed foods and sugar

‘If you’re feeling low or depressed, you’re less likely to cook healthy meals,’ says Gauffin. ‘And, if you eat a lot of processed foods, sugar and carbohydrates, you may feel worse.’ One of the reasons for this is that processed and sugary foods can lead to blood sugar highs and lows, which many people find affects their mood.

A recent review of the scientific literature on food and depression reported that the most beneficial diet to reduce depression contained plenty of vegetables, fruit, fibre, fish, wholegrains and legumes and was low in processed foods and sugar.

Tools to use daily

  • Make sure you eat a wide variety of whole foods
  • Aim to get enough of the micronutrients magnesium (like green leafy vegetables, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds), folate (including legumes, asparagus and beetroot) and B vitamins (such as eggs, seafood, dairy products and leafy greens) as these were found to be associated with lower rates of depression
  • Try to avoid cutting out entire food groups, unless advised to do so by a doctor or dietitian. This was associated with higher rates of depression. It’s not possible to prove causality but cutting out food groups can affect your health in other ways too, so it isn’t a good idea to do so before discussing it with a medical professional

5. Consider Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a talking therapy that can help you to change the habitual thought patterns that might be playing a part in your depression.

‘CBT can be very helpful in treating depression,’ says Gauffin. In fact, a large body of scientific evidence has shown that CBT is effective in treating low mood. In one recent meta-analysis of 91 studies, it was shown that CBT interventions showed a larger short-term decrease in depression compared with other treatments.

‘When you start CBT, you write down your thoughts, feelings and behaviours and then look for connections between these and your depression,’ says Gauffin. ‘This helps you to become more aware of your thoughts and actions.’

Tools to use daily

  • A GP can refer you for CBT on the NHS. This can teach you the behaviours and practices you can use every day to help stop the thought patterns that may be affecting your mood. These include challenging thinking patterns, breathing techniques and journaling

6. Explore the art of mindfulness

Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment. It involves observing your breath, thoughts and emotions, without any judgement.

By focusing on your breath and bodily sensations, even if a negative thought creeps in, you can let it go. ‘You can apply mindfulness to any situation, including making a cup of tea and washing the dishes, right through to meditation,’ says Gauffin.

‘Mindfulness can help with depression,’ says Gauffin. ‘But it requires consistency, consciousness and commitment. To be effective you need to commit to practicing it daily. Even 10 minutes every day will make a difference but it may take a couple of weeks to notice improvements.’

Tools to use daily

  • Practice daily mindfulness of breathing meditation — even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day. This will help you observe your thoughts and emotions and, in time, see that they will pass and cannot hurt you
  • A mindful pause and deep, belly breath is available to you at any time of the day. This can help you stop and observe your emotions when you’re feeling overwhelmed by them
  • Try to be more mindful in everyday life by focusing on one task at a time, be that washing the dishes or finishing a report for work. This helps you become more grounded in the present moment. That in turn may help reduce the catastrophising and ‘what ifs?’ that can lead to depressive thoughts
  • You could try the Be Mindful course on the NHS website, to help reduce stress, depression and anxiety. It will teach you these techniques and costs £30. But do be aware, this is a privately created course and is not run by the NHS

Read more about how to deal with a panic attack

7. Practice yoga

Yoga’s psychological benefits have been proven to help increase mental energy and improve mood. In one study, it was shown that doing yoga for 60 minutes three times a week increased levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA, a chemical in the brain that helps regulate nerve activity and mood.

Tools to use daily

  • Start with a little and often approach if you’re just beginning yoga, such as a few sun salutations each day. A recent study showed that when participants practised the Sun Salutations (12 physical postures done as a flowing sequence) every day for just 20 minutes, they felt mentally calmer, more relaxed, well rested, refreshed and joyful after 14 days

Should you see a doctor about your mood?

Sometimes, all the lifestyle changes in the world won’t impact the way you’re feeling — and that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up, there is help available so seek it sooner, rather than later.

See a doctor if you experience symptoms of depression for most of the day, every day, for more than 2 weeks.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Continuous low mood or sadness
  • Feeling hopeless and helpless
  • Feeling tearful
  • Feeling irritable, guilty and intolerant of others
  • Having no motivation or interest in things
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Moving and speaking more slowly
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Lack of energy
  • Low sex drive
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Feeling suicidal – if you feel like this, you must always seek help

If you think you have depression, a Livi doctor can assess your symptoms and suggest a plan of action to help you feel better.

This article has been approved by Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi and Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Licensed Psychotherapist at Livi.

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