We’ve all been sad. Losing a job. A breakup. The death of a loved one. Sadness is a normal part of being alive.
Depression is different. It can come out of nowhere and impair your social, personal, and work life. Every day is a struggle. Perhaps the ugliest symptom of depression, though, is the feeling of hopelessness. Feeling like there’s no future and things won’t get better is almost unbearable.
For generations, we saw depression as an illness, a damaged brain, or a deviation from what’s normal – but what if this view is wrong?
What if depression is your body’s way of trying to save you?
In this article, we’ll examine what it means to be depressed and introduce you to a new way of looking at depression.
Then we’ll discuss 9 ways to help you manage your depression effectively so you can start living the full life you were meant to live.
What is Depression?
Many people tend to think of stress as a binary state – you’re either stressed or not stressed. Stress triggers a response from your body. Then once the threat passes, your body returns to a resting state.
However, scientists are learning that the human stress response is much more nuanced than this simplistic view. Behavioral neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges introduced the polyvagal theory in 1994 to explain the role of the autonomic nervous system in emotional regulation and the stress response.
The polyvagal theory has revolutionized how experts think about conditions like depression.
Understanding the Polyvagal Theory
The autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that controls involuntary actions like breathing and heart rate. The polyvagal theory identifies three patterns in which the autonomic nervous system can react to stress.
The sympathetic nervous system represents the fight-or-flight response and is similar to the gas pedal on your car. Your heart rate increases, your breathing quickens, and blood rushes to your muscles – all to get your body ready to fight or flee.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the “brake.” It calms down the nervous system, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure after the threat has passed. It’s also where the remaining two pathways are located.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is connected to a cranial nerve called the vagus nerve. From your brain stem, the vagus nerve transmits information down to your heart, lungs, and digestive tract. It also connects with your neck, eyes, throat, and ears.
The polyvagal theory divides the vagus nerve into two parts:
- The ventral vagal system responds to cues of social engagement, connection, security, and safety. This is your “happy place.”
- The dorsal vagal system, which responds to extreme stress or danger. It can manifest as your brain “shutting down,” preventing movement in your body like a possum “playing dead.”
The Hierarchy of Response
The polyvagal theory identifies a hierarchy of response anchored to human evolutionary development.
The dorsal vagal system and its freeze response is the oldest pathway. The sympathetic, fight or flight response was the next to develop, followed by the ventral vagal response that brings about patterns of social engagement.
When you’re feeling safe, social, and connected, you’re grounded in your ventral vagal pathway. A sense of danger can kick you out of this state and trigger your sympathetic branch, mobilizing your body to take action. Once the danger is gone, you return to your safe and social state.
How It All Relates to Depression
The trouble comes when you feel constant or severe stress, making you feel as if you’re trapped.
In our modern lives, we are surrounded by stress. From our jobs to our health to social media, we can’t seem to get away from stress.
Even minor stress can compound over time, activating your sympathetic nervous system. Prolonged activation of the sympathetic pathway is dangerous to your health, increasing your risk of chronic diseases.
Without the option to fight or flee, your brain resorts to the dorsal vagal system – a much more primal response – in an act of self-preservation. Your brain is simply hoping the predator will lose interest and go away.
When your dorsal vagal system dominates, you feel numb, overwhelmed, disconnected, hopeless, or “not here.” 1 The world can seem like a dark, dangerous place.
All of these feelings are symptoms of depression.
The important thing to remember is that this is a biological response. Your stress response – whether it’s fight, flight, freeze, or a combination of the three – isn’t a conscious choice. It’s not your fault.
Fortunately, fight, flight, or freeze don’t have to be your only outcomes. The way your brain and body respond to a stressor is a learned pattern – which means it can be unlearned.
The symptoms of depression are the signs of a brain stuck in a parasympathetic, “freeze” state, and they can be changed.
Here are 9 techniques to help move your brain out of a “freeze” state and improve your symptoms of depression:
1. Write Your Way Through Depression
Creative outlets of self-expression like writing have long been known to improve mental and physical well-being – and it’s backed by science.
Compared to people who write about trivial or non-traumatic events, those who engage in deep and meaningful writing experience have:
- Fewer medical visits2
- Stronger immune systems3
- Better immune responses (ex: vaccine response)4
- Lower anxiety5
- Fewer symptoms of depression6,7,8
Simply writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you understand them more clearly. You may find you’re worried about something you didn’t realize had such an effect on you until you took the time to reflect on it.
Writing can also help you shift your viewpoint. When your thoughts and worries are brought to the surface, you may realize old patterns in your behavior. This empowers you to take a more active role in your treatment and gives you a chance to focus on the positive.
Researchers believe just 20 minutes of expressive writing “frees up” your brain’s resources for other mental activities, including your ability to effectively cope with stress.9
Another study involving 90 first-year college students showed expressive writing significantly improved symptoms of depression.10
If you’re new to journaling, start with just a few minutes of writing. Write openly, without worrying about grammar or punctuation rules. These are your thoughts – it’s more important that you express yourself than proofread.
Always make a point of revisiting your writing. Part of journaling’s benefits come from learning from your experiences. Once some time has passed, you may be able to identify negative patterns in your thoughts and behaviors.
2. Create Art to Fight Depression
Creation is an integral part of depression treatment.
Through creative channels, you create new patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. You create a better future for yourself, in which you are no longer robbed of your joy and confidence, and where you can live harmoniously with yourself and those around you.
Journaling is one form of creation and can have a lot of benefits for depression. When you struggle with depression, though, it can be difficult to put your feelings into words.
When the right words for your feelings don’t come to mind, try expressing yourself through art such as painting, drawing, dance, or music. It’s important to find what you enjoy.
Art therapy is a form of communication – both verbal and nonverbal. It allows you to explore your thoughts and emotions in a safe and positive way. Art can also help you break through negative or dysfunctional thought patterns, which will help you better cope with your depression.
The American Art Therapy Association states art therapy can “foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight” and reduce distress.11
In a 2015 analysis, researchers saw a significant reduction in depression among patients who participated in art therapy.12
3. Eat an Anti-Depression Diet
Diet has a massive impact on your emotional well-being, so much so that the field of nutritional psychiatry is devoted to it.
It boils down to the fact that what you eat matters for your overall well-being, including your mental health. One analysis of 21 studies concluded that diets associated with a low risk of depression had high intakes of:
- Whole grain
- Olive oil
- Low-fat dairy
Low intake of animal foods also characterized these diets.13
On the other hand, diets with an increased risk of depression look more like the standard Western diet. They’re high in red or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes, and high-fat gravy, and low in fruits and vegetables.13
4. Choose the Right Exercise for You
Exercise releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in your brain.
It also releases proteins called neurotrophic factors in the brain, which help nerve cells grow and create new patterns. Scientists believe these improve brain function, including reducing depression.14
The thing is, being told that exercise will help is meaningless to people with depression. You already know all the things you could or should be doing – but your brain won’t let you do them.
You don’t have to exercise.
Be honest with yourself. If you’re exercising because you feel like you should, it won’t work. Take a break from the idea of exercise. See if your perspective changes in a few days. If not, repeat as often as needed.
If you decide to exercise, it’s essential to choose the right workout for you. If you’d rather not work out among hardcore fitness enthusiasts, then a gym might not be the right venue for you. Also, if you’ve never lifted weights in your life, you may want to reconsider going straight into weight training.
If you’re not sure which exercise program is right for you, try yoga.
A growing body of evidence shows yoga can generate balanced energy, reduce breathing and heart rates, lower blood pressure, restore calmness, and reduce depression.15
Walking is also an activity that almost everyone can enjoy, and the benefits for your mood are even greater if you walk outside in nature.
More important than the type of exercise, however, is that you listen to your body. If you find yourself pushing beyond your limits to prove your worth – don’t do it. An unfinished workout affects you only today, but an injury can hurt your body and exacerbate your depression.
Once you complete a workout, congratulate yourself. Don’t dwell on the parts you might have skipped. You have time to figure it out next time. Instead, celebrate the parts you completed!
5. Make Sleep a High Priority
A healthy lifestyle isn’t just about eating right and exercising. It also includes getting quality sleep.
Sleep disturbances are very common in people with depression. Researchers have found that sleep and depression have a bidirectional relationship. This means depression can lead to sleep issues, and poor sleep can contribute to depression.16 Determining which came first can be challenging.
Common sleep issues related to depression include insomnia, hypersomnia, and obstructive sleep apnea.17
To improve your quality of sleep, try some of the following:
- Keep a regular sleep/wake schedule
- Nap only 10 to 20 minutes during the day (or not at all)
- Avoid alcohol
- Spend time outside to align your circadian rhythms
- Reduce blue light exposure at night
- Take a melatonin supplement
- Avoid food late at night
Sleep plays a crucial role in your well-being. Make getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night a priority.
6. Connect With Family and Friends
One of the most interesting aspects of polyvagal theory is the element of social engagement as a part of the human nervous system.
You may not realize it, but you read thousands of social cues every day. When you interact with other people, you read their facial expressions, listen to their tone of voice, watch their bodily movement, and more. It’s a vital part of the human experience.
When you’re depressed, connecting with others can be difficult. Depressed people often feel like they’re broken, abnormal, or ill, and these feelings can lead you to self-isolate.
Following the polyvagal theory, to get out of the “freeze” response, your nervous system has to detect safety signals.
The best way to feel safe? Maintain connections with people you trust.
When you interact positively with trusted family and friends, you’re able to be yourself. You feel good and you feel safe.
Unfortunately, the current pandemic has wreaked havoc on our social lives. The increased levels of social disconnection have taken a heavy toll on our mental health.
Now that things are getting back to normal, I encourage you to go out and try to connect with others. Whether you’re just interacting with the friendly barista at your local café or going out dancing with your friends, you may find that your brain has been craving the social connection – and those feelings of safety that result can actually rewire your brain.
7. Set and Accomplish SMART Goals to Combat Depression
Depression can make you feel unaccomplished.
To fight depression, you need to actively challenge your pattern of thinking. This is where goals come in.
You may have created big goals for yourself in the past but never accomplished them. Big, long-term goals are good, but they can also be daunting and discouraging. I encourage you to break up big goals into smaller, more manageable ones.
Your goals can be as simple as going for a 5-minute walk in your neighborhood. That 5-minute walk can eventually become 30 minutes or longer.
Make sure your goals follow the SMART approach:
- Specific: Define who is involved, what you want to accomplish, where you will do it, why you’re doing it, and when you will do it.
- Measurable: Make your goals measurable so they’re easier to track. That way, you’ll know when you’ve reached the finish line.
- Achievable: Goals should be challenging but achievable. Ask yourself if your goal is something you can reasonably accomplish, given your current skills and resources.
- Relevant: Is your goal meaningful and worthwhile to you? How does it align with your values and life goals?
- Time-bound: What is the time frame for accomplishing the goal? A deadline will keep you motivated.
Most importantly, don’t do it alone. Get support from your network as you work toward your goals. An accountability partner is a great idea. You can check in on each other’s progress and hold each other accountable for achieving your goals.
8. Develop and Maintain a Routine
When you’re depressed, just getting out of bed can be a struggle. Having a daily routine can help.
Routines create structure and give you a sense of accomplishment. You feel you’re in control of your life. They also let you – and others – know how you’re doing.
Simple daily routines include:
- Waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day
- Dressing for the day
- Writing down 4 or 5 things you’d like to accomplish that day
- Eating at regular times
- Walking your dog
- Writing down 3 things you’re grateful for
Don’t forget personal hygiene! When you look good, you feel good.
9. Fight Depression With Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback is a non-invasive treatment technique that trains your brain to unlearn the patterns that lead to depression.
Brain waves can be used to measure brain activity. Research studies have reported that different brain waves can also reflect different moods.
Neurofeedback takes advantage of this by mirroring your brain’s electromagnetic patterns to itself in real-time. When your brain learns which parts are more active than others, it can self-correct and create new connections. Just like how you learned any other skill, neurofeedback uses practice, repetition, and feedback to make the changes more permanent.
What does this mean for you? A more joyful, positive, confident you.
A 2017 study found that neurofeedback therapy can be effective at reducing depression symptoms, especially when combined with another form of biofeedback.18
Another study showed that neurofeedback therapy is an effective treatment method for treatment-resistant depression.19
Neurofeedback is a great alternative or adjunctive depression treatment and many patients see results after just one session. To learn more, visit our page What is Neurofeedback Therapy?
Freedom From Depression is Within Your Reach
Depression can turn your world upside-down. You feel scared. Confused. Hopeless. Lost.
It’s so important to know that you’re not alone. There are many things you can do today to manage your depression in healthy, positive ways. It doesn’t have to control your life.
Schedule a free Discovery Call with NeuroLogic to learn how we can help you. We’ve helped many people in Seattle overcome their depression with a whole-brain approach to care.Don’t wait to get the help you need. You are worth it.