Technological and medical advances, increased life expectancy, more varied food choices and (for many of us) significant leisure time all contribute to our modern style of life. But this lifestyle comes at a cost. We’re more sedentary than ever before. Our diet is less healthy than in previous generations. There are more time pressures, less family commitment, more social isolation. All these factors have been linked to an increase in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Mainstream treatments for depression basically come down to two choices. The first is antidepressant medication and the second is psychological therapy. Sometimes these overlap in the sense that psychological treatments run concurrently with medication. Chugging along in the background is a third option, which could and perhaps should be regarded as equally important. I’m thinking here of lifestyle.
Costs and benefits
We adapt our lifestyles according to our own circumstances, situations, and ages. However, if we break down lifestyle into some of its components and match these to the evidence for depression, some interesting things start to emerge. Jerome Sarris, a professor of Integrative Mental Health at Western Sydney University, has done just that. Sarris promotes what he calls Lifestyle Medicine, or safe and low-cost options to help in the prevention and management of depression. Here are some of his ideas:
- Sleep: Lack of sleep and poor quality of sleep is associated with an increased risk of depression.
- Socializing: A good social support network is beneficial for mental health.
Low- to moderate-cost elements
- Diet: There is a relationship between quality of diet and risk of depression.
- Exercise: There is good evidence that exercise improves mood.
- Relaxation: Relaxation techniques with a mindfulness component are helpful for improved mood.
- Pets: Studies point to the psychological benefits of pets as companions.
For most people, some or possibly all of these elements are within our grasp.
Things to cut down or stop
- Smoking: Rates of depression are higher in smokers than in non-smokers. Mental health outcomes consistently improve in people who quit smoking.
- Alcohol: A glass of beer or wine has a fairly speedy effect in that it helps relaxation. There is however a connection between alcohol and depression as well as self-harm and suicide in people who become dependent on alcohol. Too much drinking also makes people feel depressed.
- Work: Stress can lead to stress-induced depression. If your depression results from this you may need to take time off work and consider how to modify your situation in order to prevent a worsening of symptoms.
Our lifestyle is a reflection of our identity. It says something about our attitudes and behaviors, but also our politics, faith, health and relationships. Lifestyle is about the things that motivate us and the ways in which we choose to spend our money and our time. Therefore, no two lifestyles are ever quite the same, but the things that make up what we call lifestyle can support or undermine our mental health, so we must choose carefully.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.