Created by the Center for Spirituality & Healing and Charlson Meadows.

What Lifestyle Changes are Recommended for Anxiety and Depression?

Lifestyle changes are simple but powerful tools in treating depression and anxiety, and they are an essential component of an integrated approach to treatment. In some cases, lifestyle changes alone can lift depression or relieve anxiety, so it makes sense to start with them right away. But if you are suffering from moderate to severe depression or anxiety, also seek professional help right away. And if you don’t see relief from symptoms of mild depression in a few months, likewise seek professional help.

Lifestyle changes that can help include the following.

Exercise

Exercise is the most important place to start. Numerous well-designed studies have found exercise to be effective in elevating mood and reducing symptoms of depression. As for anxiety, many research studies have also found an improvement in anxiety symptoms with increased physical activity, especially mindful movement, such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong.

Exercise stimulates the body to produce serotonin and endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters) that alleviate depression. But that only partially explains the positive impacts of exercise on depression.

Participating in an exercise program can increase self-esteem, self-confidence, and sense of empowerment, as well as improve social connection and enhance relationships. All of these things have a positive impact on a depressed or anxious individual.

Diet

The brain is one of the most metabolically active parts of the body and needs a steady stream of nutrients to function. A poor diet may not provide the nutrients necessary to produce neurotransmitters and may provoke symptoms of anxiety or depression. The science of Functional Medicine provides specific guidelines on foods for brain health.

In addition to eating a healthy diet that provides adequate nutrients, it is also important to make sure your gut is healthy so you can absorb those nutrients. This means paying attention to the health of your intestinal flora—the bacteria that break down foods. Taking supplemental probiotics with two or more live cultures (for example lactobacillus and bifidobacerium) and eating fermented foods, such as yogurt and miso, help support a healthy digestive system.

Sweetened beverages, such as sweetened tea, soda, and fruit punch may also contribute to depression. A recent study found that people who drink four or more cups or cans of soda every day are 30% more likely to be depressed than people who did not drink soda. The same study reported that those who drank unsweetened coffee each day (either regular or decaf) reported less depression than non-coffee drinkers. Because other studies show that long-term use of caffeine has been linked with anxiety, decaffeinated coffee may be the best choice for some.

Longer term studies in this area are needed, but minimizing refined sugars and caffeine is currently an easy and logical recommendation. If you are a regular caffeine user, cutting back gradually will be best tolerated.

Alcohol

Depressed populations have more problems with alcohol use even though alcohol itself is a depressant. Alcohol use may be a way that individuals ‘self-medicate,’ trying to numb the pain of their depression. People suffering from depression should stop drinking alcohol. If alcohol abuse underlies the depression, it is critical that it be addressed directly.

Sleep

Poor sleep has a strong effect on mood, in part because the neurotransmitters needed to support mood are replenished with sleep. Thus we need restorative sleep to maintain a balanced brain and mental health.

People who don’t get adequate sleep, in length or quality, each night are more likely to develop major depression than those who sleep through the night. In addition, research shows that sleep-deprived people have a much stronger tendency to classify neutral images as “negative,” so that even everyday items can seem more menacing and contribute to anxiety.

Make getting the amount of good quality sleep you need a priority

Thoughts and Emotions

Negative attitudes and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can upset the body's hormone balance and deplete the brain chemicals required for feelings of happiness or calm, as well as have a damaging impact on the immune system and other parts of our body.

We tend to believe that our emotions are part of who we are and can’t be changed. Research has shown that this isn’t so: emotions can be changed by altering the situation (leaving a depleting job), shifting our attention (noticing the beauty of the day instead of the traffic), and by re-framing our perspective (“that person is under stress,” rather than “he doesn’t like me”).

How we choose to live our lives impacts the way we feel every day. Certain types of mental training, such as meditation or positive thinking, can affect our perceptions of the world and make us feel calmer, more resilient, and happier. Other researchers have identified many other helpful attitudes—such as forgiveness, gratitude, and kindness—that can be developed with practice.

Stress Reduction

Too much stress exacerbates depression and anxiety. Begin by identifying what creates stress for you (your stressors) and see if you can make changes in your life to reduce these stressors. Learn relaxation techniques to help reduce your reaction to stressors, and cultivate intentional, helpful responses. Cultivate resilience so that you can best handle life stressors that are not avoidable. For relaxation and other mind-body techniques to try, see the section entitled What Integrative Therapies and Healing Practices Might Help for Anxiety and Depression?

Social Support

Strong relationships and social support networks reduce isolation and loneliness, both key risk factors for depression.

Anxiety can also cause us to avoid other people and become isolated. But reaching out to friends and family can help us deal with our anxiety. Our friends can help us make realistic assessments of threat and their support can bolster our confidence in dealing with issues. Pets can also be wonderful for helping us to feel support and companionship.  Physically, having a loved one (two or four-legged) close calms us and reduces the fight or flight response.

So keep in regular contact with friends and family, or consider joining a class or group. Volunteering is a wonderful way to get social support and help others while also helping yourself.

Purpose

Extensive research has found that people with a strong sense of purpose are better able to handle the ups and downs of life. Purpose can offer a psychological buffer against obstacles—thus, a person with a strong sense of purpose remains satisfied with life even while experiencing a difficult day. According to researcher Barbara Fredrickson, this kind of long-term resilience can lead to less worry and greater happiness over time.

Spirituality also helps people meet challenges and continue. Having a strong spiritual outlook may help you find meaning in life’s difficult circumstances.

Disclaimer: The information in this website page is not to be used in place of medical treatment by a health or mental health provider.

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