Focusing Your Way Out of Depression
Depression has soared to near-epidemic levels in just a few years. The response has been an exponential increase in anti-depressant medications - which barely has made a dent in the rapid rise of this debilitating condition. Thankfully, there's now a mountain of evidence that working with our minds and bodies in specific ways can significantly reduce depression – and without side effects.
Professor Stephen Ilardi is on a mission. As a depression researcher at the University of Kansas, Ilardi grew alarmed at the skyrocketing growth of depression worldwide, and the ineffectiveness of anti-depressants to slow that climb. Ilardi suspected there must be a better way and set out to find it.
The stakes are high. Depression is debilitating and can limit a person’s effectiveness in every area of life, increasing pain, decreasing memory and attention, and in some cases even leading to suicide. What if there were steps people could take to greatly ease their depression? After working with thousands of depressed patients and seeing success, Ilardi is convinced you can.
I have seen the impact of Ilardi’s work first-hand with my own clients and offer here the basic principles of his research-based anti-depression program. If you or someone you know has depression, implementing his suggestions may be life-changing. And although feeling down (which all of us experience at times) is decidedly not the same thing as depression, these same steps can help brighten your mood in general.
A caveat: This is not offered as medical advice and is not intended to substitute for medical advice. Any decisions concerning prescription medication should be made with a medical professional. The suggestions outlined here, based on Professor Ilardi’s research, all involve natural processes that may be implemented regardless of whether prescription medication or other approaches are used.
It’s About Your Mind, Not Your Genes
Although many assume depression results from having the “wrong” genes, it is highly unlikely that genetics is the main culprit, given how swiftly the rate of depression has climbed. If depression were merely a matter of genetics or brain chemistry, we would expect to see similar rates of depression among older and younger generations. Yet, that’s not the case at all.
With each generation, the rates of depression have climbed significantly. About 10% of people over 60 have experienced depression. But for millennials, by the time they reach their mid-20s, fully 25% have already experienced depression – and at current rates, over 50% of millennials are expected to experience depression by the time they reach middle age!
Rates of depression have spiked so rapidly that the World Health Organization now identifies depression as "the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide." Just between 2005 and 2015, worldwide depression rates increased by nearly 20%.
And this alarming upward trajectory has occurred in the face of an over 300% increase in the use of anti-depressants over the past two decades. If depression were simply a matter of biology, we would not see such a steep climb within a couple of generations. Our biology simply hasn’t changed that much that quickly.
So what’s going on?
To find out, Ilardi looked at indigenous tribes that hardly experience depression at all.
Although the mountain of research on depression identifies numerous potential causes, a common thread throughout the research is the brain’s inability to handle stress. Stress inflames both the brain and body, which is a huge factor in depression.
But certain indigenous tribes seem to be nearly immune from stress, and from the inflammation caused by stress and the consequent depression and numerous other physical ailments. What is their secret?
For full details, I highly recommend Professor Ilardi's book, The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs.
You can also watch Professor Ilardi’s excellent Ted Talk here:
For a summary of Professor Ilardi's findings and the steps you can begin today to function optimally, and minimize the stress and inflammation that lead to depression, read on.
The Secret To Beating Depression
A long-term study of the Kaluli people of New Guinea found that almost none of them experience depression. They remain depression-proof despite experiencing high rates of infant mortality, infection and violent death. What accounts for the near-absence of depression among the Kaluli and some other indigenous peoples, even as we are experiencing explosive rates of depression despite having first-world health care, and all of the conveniences of modern life?
The answer is quite simple. Our brains are set up for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle practiced by the Kaluli. We were never designed to handle the sedentary, multi-tasking, junk food diet, too-little-sleep pace of the 21st century. In fact, our modern lifestyles are almost a recipe for depression.
When we contrast our behaviors with those of groups like the Kaluli, it's clear why our depression rates have increased so radically – younger generations engage even more intensively in the behaviors that contribute to depression. And the widespread use of anti-depressants has not proved to be the solution many hoped for, given that they don't help 50% of patients, and half of those who do experience relief eventually experience a relapse.
What to do?
Ilardi offers six steps you can take that will treat your brain and body the way the Kaluli treat theirs, while still living in the modern world. Ilardi has seen an over 70% success rate among his participants who followed these steps, many of whom had not improved with medication.
Not only do these six steps shield the Kaluli from depression. Ilardi scoured the vast field of depression research and found each of these six steps identified in the scientific literature as factors that help reduce depression. These six factors, practiced together, literally change your brain chemistry, helping to ward off depression and a host of other conditions.
The six steps are:
1. Exercise. The Kaluli don’t exercise in the formal sense. But they and other groups that avoid depression are physically active at least 3-4 hours a day. Exercise may be the most important step you can take to avoid depression and for your overall mental and physical health. But you don’t need to devote half your day to exercise to get the benefits. Studies have pitted Zoloft (a common anti-depressant) against brisk walking for 30 minutes, three times a week. When it came to reducing depression, the walking beat out Zoloft!
If you don’t already exercise, try it. Just three times a week for 30 minutes. If you're not sure how to start, this article will tell you more about the benefits of walking, and this one will show you how to optimize your walking routine. 2. Omega 3. Our brains need a balance of Omega-3s for their anti-inflammatory properties, and Omega-6s for their inflammatory qualities. Yet the typical American diet, laden with processed food, favors inflammatories by a factor of 17 to 1. This is a disaster for brain health.
To restore the inflammatory/anti-inflammatory balance, supplement with Omega-3. You can find Omega-3 at your local pharmacy in the form of fish oil or tablets. Research studies show that a specific type of Omega-3 works effectively as an anti-depressant. Look for Omega-3 with at least 1000 milligrams a day of EPA and 500 milligrams a day of DPA. Like exercise, taking Omega-3s regularly will not only help fight depression, but is beneficial in numerous ways to your brain and body.
3. Social Connection. Having a social network and regular in-person interaction reduces stress levels (no, chatting on social media doesn’t count). Isolation, common in our modern world, increases the risk of depression. If you don’t have a ready-made social network, create one. Join a book club, a sports league, a weekly poker game, or any other regular social group in your city that meets your interests.
4. Avoid Ruminative Thinking. One of the biggest challenges many of my clients face is engaging in “thought loops” – thinking the same thoughts over and over, usually negative thoughts that only increase our stress and lower our mood.
Dwelling on your own thoughts, and letting them cycle over and over is a recipe for feeling down. We all do this to some extent, if left unchecked. There are a few ways you can counter ruminative thinking. The first step is to become aware of your thoughts, so that you can break the thought chain when you notice negative thoughts repeating themselves.
Regular meditation can help you become more aware of your thoughts, or you can try the simple exercise I described here. Engaging with the world also helps. When you are socially engaged (see step 3), you are far less likely and able to retreat to your own thoughts, much less wallow in them. Even when you’re alone, you can ward off thought loops by actively engaging in an activity. If you are writing or exercising or making a cake, it’s harder to devote yourself to thoughts that lead nowhere.
5. Sunlight. It is well documented that depression increases during the winter, and in locations with little sunlight. Sunlight impacts our internal body clock, and a half hour a day is sufficient to positively impact your mood. If you can find a walking partner, then you can check off three of the six steps simply by briskly walking outdoors while talking with a friend for at least 30 minutes.
6. Sleep. People who are chronically sleep-deprived are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, think less clearly and have difficulty focusing, age more quickly and are more likely to get into accidents. Several studies also show that sleep-deprived people are much more likely to be depressed.
Unless you are one of those rare exceptions who can function well on little sleep, if you are getting less than six hours of sleep, then it’s time to reconsider your sleep schedule. 7-9 hours a night is ideal for most people. Think of the last time you were sleep-deprived and were in a great mood. The two don’t go together.
Any one of these six steps can boost your mood and your overall well-being. In combination, they are potent life-enhancers. And best of all, they are simple. A little walking, a little sunlight, time with friends, proper sleep, Omega-3, and watching your thoughts. That’s all that stands between you and a better mood, better focus, better health and a better life.