Depression is a complex disorder with many root causes, so the more angles you can attack it from, the better. Depression doesn’t have to control you. Use these scientifically-proven hacks to elevate your mood.
(Good news: These boost your mood even if you don't suffer from depression!)
One of my biggest depression fighters is exercise. I wish I’d known sooner that for people with depression, exercise is not optional. It is an absolutely essential treatment for mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even schizophrenia. It is natural, has no side-effects, has extensive additional benefits, and is proven effective.
Exercise relieves depression by enhancing the action of endorphins, which improve mood and reduce the perception of pain. But what else can you do to stack the odds of happiness in your favor?
We have so much more control over our bodies (where the brain is) than society (and even doctors!) lead us to believe. Here are five surprising depression hacks I wish I'd known sooner, the science behind them, and how to use it.
Gut Flora and You
I wish someone had told me sometime during the fifteen years that I struggled with severe depression that eating yogurt could help me be happy!
We think of the brain as being in charge, but there is a nervous system in our guts, the enteric system, that sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the intestines. The intestines even contain neurons (brain cells)!
Recent research has linked an abundant microbiota in the gut with higher serotonin production. One study has linked increased ability to handle stress in mice with a diet supplemented with specific gut microbiota. But I’m not a mouse, and neither are you (I'm assuming). Another study showed that taking a daily multi-strain probiotic decreased negative thoughts and increased the ability to handle stress in healthy adult humans.
An abundant bacterial environment in your gut will stimulate higher serotonin production and cause you to be happier and more able to handle stressful situations. We have many types of bacteria in our gut, and to best cultivate your gut flora, eat foods with multiple strains of probiotics. Yogurt and kefir are the best food sources of multi-strain probiotics.
Eat probiotics → enrich your gut microbiota → increase your serotonin → be happier.
It’s usually best to get probiotics from food sources rather than supplements. To be beneficial, the bacteria from your probiotic foods have to survive the stomach and make it alive to the intestines. They survive best when eaten in dairy form, such as in yogurt and kefir, rather than kimchi or sauerkraut. (Oh, and frozen yogurt does not contain any live bacteria. Sorry!)
The Smile Trick
We typically think that our moods affect our physicality, but research says that it also works the other way around. Your physiology affects your mood. And smiling tricks your brain into thinking it's happy. Though happy people tend to smile and depressed people tend to scowl and slump their shoulders, people who smile feel better and people who scowl and slump their shoulders feel worse.
Smile and stand or sit up straight, especially when you feel sad, and you will experience a boost in mood.
When you smile, your brain assumes you must be happy. And it feels that way. One reason is that smiling releases endorphins and relieves stress. Studies show that people who smile feel better than those who don’t, and that smiling in stressful situations makes them easier to handle.
I put a big grin on my face whenever I get in my car and keep it there for the entire ride. Try to smile the whole time you’re in the shower. Or set an alarm every day, hit snooze when it goes off, and smile for the 5-10 minutes between the alarms.
If you are anxious in social situations, smiling can be a powerful weapon. It makes you look more confident and makes you look more attractive to members of both sexes. Not only that, but smiling is contagious and actually boosts the moods of those around you. The next time you’re feeling anxiety in a social setting, think about a goofy joke and smile!
Snuff Out the Flame
Several studies link inflammatory foods to depression. Not only that, but chronic inflammation—which is very common in Americans—causes heart disease, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s, and many cancers.
If you are interested in living a healthy and full life, you owe it to yourself to avoid inflammatory foods and increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods. Follow this simple infographic from Harvard Medical School.
Please know that, contrary to popular belief, eating unhealthy foods in moderation does not lend itself to a healthy or even moderately healthy body. Research suggests that moderate consumption of unhealthy foods, like refined sugars, processed meats, and fried foods, creates a moderately unhealthy body.
Eat a diet with abundant dark green leafy vegetables, berries, fatty fish, and other healthy fats from olive oil and nuts and you will fight depression, and lift your mood! Not only that, but you will be more energized and focused, and prevent a laundry list of chronic diseases.
Most people's thoughts just happen to them and they never realize that they can actually change their thoughts.
You can control your thoughts. They don't have to just happen without your consent. I am not saying that you can think your way out of depression. Trust me, I know you can’t.
But, you can choose to focus more on the positive than the negative, use gratitude to transform your mindstate, and—the one that revolutionized my life—reprogram the unconscious negative thought patterns that are constantly running without your permission.
Perception is Everything
By changing our thoughts, we change our perceptions of the world. And perception is everything. When it comes to your experience of the world, your perception is literally 100% of your experience.
So when you consciously think positive thoughts, your world becomes more positive. This is not some soft self-help babble. It is scientific fact. There is a proven correlation between dwelling on the positive and decreased depression.
Positive thinking doesn't mean you have to be all cheesy and force yourself to think, "Everything is great! My life is so AWESOME!" if that feels wrong. It means shifting your focus put a positive spin on your reality.
For example, you got laid off? Instead of spiraling into a negative thought pattern that never ends, see your future as wide open and free. What new journey will you get to begin as a result? How many times has something terrible turned out to be "one of the best things that ever happened to me"?
What if, instead of wasting energy in negativity, you could live in that future feeling? (Even if the outcome doesn't end up being beneficial, you still win. You didn't let life steal your positivity.) Circumstance is often completely out of your control, but how you interpret and react to it is completely up to you.
Many studies have shown the transformational power of gratitude, which is effective almost immediately. Everyone has something they can be grateful for.
If you're reading this, you can be grateful that you have access to the internet and a device to use. Maybe you have indoor plumbing (seriously, imagine life without it!), have eaten today, or you have a job, a good friend, or a car. How about not having lost your phone or your wallet?Try to be as grateful for your phone as you would be furious if it were lost or stolen.
If nothing else, feel some real gratitude that you are not lost in Mexico in a rainstorm.
It is easy to dwell on how terrible and unjust the world is. But it only takes a slightly more effort to notice and appreciate all the amazing things we take for granted. You can conjure up real gratitude for these things in your life. It is proven to make you feel good.
Reprogram Unconscious Thought Patterns
I never would have recovered if I had not decided to consciously reprogram the unconscious thought patterns that were constantly running in my brain.
For example, one of the reasons (other than serotonin deficiency, multiple nutrient deficiencies, lack of exercise, and inflammatory diet, etc.) I was so depressed was because I had a deep unconscious belief that I was unworthy of love. This was an old message I received in childhood. And it is almost impossible to be happy with that underlying assumption.
One of the reasons (other than the aforementioned) that I was so anxious all the time was that no matter where I was, I never felt safe. No matter where I was, I always felt like I was in danger of being attacked, abandoned, or both. Again, these were messages I received as a child.
Once I became aware, through working with a counselor, that I had these "programs" running in the background of my brain all the time, I was determined to send my subconscious different messages.
This was one of my most powerful transformational practices. It changed my life so powerfully that I almost want to use the word “miraculous.” But I’ll use “neurolinguistic” instead.
I simply told myself that I was loved and safe. I posted notes all over my room and car, and I repeated these sentences to myself over and over again until they became true for me. I repeated them until I created new neural pathways, or until these thoughts were etched into the cells of my brain.
And this etching happens in a very real way. This is not some new-age woo woo. This is neurobiologic function. All it takes is consistent repetition to reprogram your brain. When you train your brain to think new thoughts, those thoughts eventually make actual structural changes to your neural pathways, or your brain's paths of habitual thinking. They become your reality.
See the Light
We’ve all experienced how sunshine can boost our moods. But bright lights can have the same effect. Our brains evolved in bodies that had sun exposure, and we're still in those same bodies. Until the last few hundred years, most human beings spent most of their day outdoors. We need daily sun or bright light exposure for healthy serotonin production, as sunlight is linked to serotonin levels in the brain.
Bright light has been proven to alleviate seasonal depression, but research has shown that it can be an effective treatment for nonseasonal depression also. In fact, light therapy has been shown to be as effective as antidepressant drugs trials.
If you have depression, getting outdoors is essential. Make sure to get sun exposure whenever you can (and don’t forget your sunscreen!), especially if you work inside all day long. Take a long walk during your lunch hour, or do some outdoor activities after work such as gardening, walking the dog, rec softball, or biking with your kids. These days you don't even have to get off the Internet to get outside. Take your surfing to a park or outdoor coffee shop.
If you live in a northern climate with very short winter days, you can try a light therapy lamp, which provide more lux than can be achieved by any indoor lighting.
Depression is a complex beast. But if you are able to implement all the information that scientific progress has given us, it is completely possible to surmount deep depression. Use as many weapons as you can in your fight for yourself. I will stand with you as you do.