A comprehensive guide to preventing depression

Everybody goes through ups and downs but not everybody gets depressed. So what differentiates those who get depressed from those who don’t? 

While hereditary factors do play a role, the good news is that depression is not all genetics and destiny – there is a lot we can do to prevent depression even when going through hard times. 

In short, there is hope. 

Before I share with you the action steps, here is a cautionary note: We are NOT talking about treating depression. 

If you or your loved one is suffering from depression, they should most certainly take the necessary treatment and therapy. The steps outlined here are not meant to replace medical treatment but to supplement it. So take these steps along with the treatment.

Here are some specific steps to prevent and fight depression:

1. Exercise 

Now, you might be tempted to dismiss this as feel-good, generic advice, but don’t. Research has shown that as a treatment, exercise is as effective as anti-depressant drugs. Exercise is free and all its side effects are highly positive. And on top of that, it has a lower relapse rate, i.e., if you are exercising regularly, you are less likely to become depressed again than if you just came out of depression with the help of medication alone. 

Exercise releases a cocktail of chemicals in our brain including endorphins that improve our sense of well-being and elevate our mood. In fact, this is not just a bookish theory – I have personally experienced that after a long run, my mood totally changes. No matter how low I am feeling before the exercise, I feel way more optimistic and calm after the run. Some days, you even feel euphoric!

Yet, despite its obvious benefits, many depression sufferers don’t work out. They would tell you that they lack the energy to even get out of bed – how would they find the energy to work out? 

The answer is to start small. Even if you start with a walk of 15-20 min, it is a great start. You can build on it and you will soon be walking and running long distances. Also, if possible, rope in some friend(s) who can pull you along for a workout or a walk and run. That will solve the problem of motivation.

Also, find which exercise works for you. For me, a gym membership works like magic – it has helped me sustain my workout habit for more than a decade. 

Working out regularly is a life-saver, especially in the moments when you feel low. 

2. Sleep

Sleep deprivation makes you irritable and destabilizes your mood. Sleep is a restorative process that allows your mind and body to recharge. 

A typical adult needs between 7 to 9 hrs of sleep. So stop doing crazy late nights and start sleeping on time to wake up refreshed. I prefer to wake up without an alarm and would recommend the same for you.

3. Challenge your thoughts

Thoughts affect our mood just as our mood affects our thoughts. So if we have dysfunctional, catastrophizing thoughts, they will affect our mood. And since the mood affects our thoughts, it can even become a vicious cycle. 

And it so happens that we trust our thoughts, no matter how dysfunctional. After all, we all believe that our thinking is logical. But it is often not so, especially when we are going through a low phase. In such times, we consistently make some thinking errors.

E.g., If your friend did not reply to your email and you conclude that ‘nobody loves me.’. This kind of catastrophizing leads to low mood and increases the odds of getting depressed.

But there is good news – we are not destined to have these dysfunctional thoughts – we can challenge and change them. In fact, this was a breakthrough treatment technique given by Aaron Beck and is called ‘Cognitive Behavior Therapy.’

While it always helps if you go to a therapist, you can also learn this technique on your own. At its core, the idea is simple – whenever you have a catastrophizing thought, challenge it. Ask yourself, ‘How do I know this to be true?’

To take the earlier example where your friend did not reply to your email, look at all possibilities. Could your friend have missed reading the email? Or could they have read it but decided to reply later? And even if this friend doesn’t love you, does nobody else? What about other friends? What about family members? 

As you challenge your thinking with these questions, you come to a more objective conclusion. And when you stop catastrophizing, it uplifts your mood. This can be extremely effective in fighting depression. In fact, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is considered the gold standard in psychotherapy.

4. Beat stress with relaxation

Prolonged stress can lead to depression and worsen an existing one. 

But thankfully, there are effective ways to handle stress. For that, let us quickly understand stress. 

Stress is our body firing up its ‘fight or flight’ response triggered by the activation of its sympathetic nervous system. If this sounds like jargon, here is it in simple words – your body is getting ready to fight a physical threat by pumping up the heart rate, diverting blood to big muscle groups, slowing digestion, etc. 

Stress is very useful to prevent physical danger, e.g., dashing out of the way of a car when crossing the road. But sustained stress is devastating for our body and can lead to depression.

Here are some ways to overcome stress and become relaxed:

I have personally found Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) to be amazingly effective in relieving stress. In this exercise, you squeeze and tense up each major muscle group in your body for about 10 seconds, and then relax it to feel the tension drain away. When the body is relaxed, it signals the brain that there is no threat and it too can relax. 

Often, in just 15 min, PMR can take you from feeling extreme stress to feeling calm and relaxed. In this video, I do a guided PMR that you can easily follow.

Other techniques include deep belly breathing. You can breathe in, to the count of 4, hold to the count of 4, and slowly breathe out to the count of 8. These techniques are also seen in yoga and pranayam.

You can also try techniques like hypnosis, possibly using some YouTube videos for guidance.

5. Don’t compare with other people on social media

On social media, people present a very curated picture of themselves. You might feel that everyone has an amazing life and you are the only one living a mediocre life, with no excitement. 

Comparing yourself to others is folly. And doing so with people on social media is an even greater blunder. It will make you feel worse and lower your spirits. 

Hence I strongly urge you to lower your social media and smartphone consumption. It destroys your focus, prevents you from achieving your goals, and makes you feel helpless. All these things cause stress and anxiety, and can affect your mental health.

6. Journaling: An antidote to rumination

Quite often, we have thoughts swirling around in our heads – these can be problems, past memories, worries about the future, and unpleasant experiences. Sometimes, we replay negative experiences in our mind, again and again, struggling to find a way out. 

This can harm our mental health. Journaling is a very simple yet powerful technique for handling such rumination. 

Think of journaling as an intimate conversation you are having with yourself. Pick a diary and pen, and let the thoughts flow. Talk to yourself about whatever is on your mind. Specifically, if something is bothering you, feel free to address it. Let it go in whatever direction you feel like. 

Sometimes, you might come up with an actionable conclusion. Other times, you may conclude that there is nothing you can do – acceptance is the only way. 

Regardless, putting your pen to paper can help you put distance between yourself and your thoughts. 

Do this every day and you will start enjoying it. 

7. Practice gratitude

One of the most powerful antidotes to depression is gratitude. But then, why do we have to deliberately practice gratitude? 

We have a tendency to adapt to everything – hence we start taking things for granted. No matter how good something is, over time we get used to it and take it for granted. When we are sick, we crave to be healthy but when we get well, we quickly forget how lucky we are to be healthy – we just take it for granted.

Deliberately practicing gratitude fights the tendency to adapt and makes us realize the blessings we have been taking for granted. Depressed patients have reported feeling a strong improvement in their mood by practicing gratitude.

While there are many ways to practice gratitude, here is a simple journaling technique called ‘three blessings’ or ‘three good things.’ 

In your journal, write down three good things that happened to you that day, and why they happened. If someone was responsible for the good things, convey your gratitude to them by writing it down. This will help you see the amazing things in your life that you take for granted, such as your family and health.

8. Find social connect

Don’t isolate yourself. Make friends, meet them up for dinner, play games, or just sit and talk to them. Making social connections has a strong positive impact on your mindset. 

But remember – we are talking about real social connections, not the kind you make on Facebook.

9. Do fun activities

Dance, sing or do anything that makes you happy, especially if it is physically engaging. These activities will release endorphins and other neurotransmitters that will make you feel good.

10. Community service

When we are of service to others, it takes our attention away from our own miseries. Also, doing good for others creates strong positive emotions. Also, it can be a great way to break our ruminations by moving the spotlight away from ourselves. 

So find opportunities to help others and be kind. You could teach some kids, help your elderly neighbors, or find any opportunity to do good. 

It will change how you feel about life. 

11. Meditation 

One of the best techniques for relieving stress is meditation. There are many techniques, though the simplest yet very powerful technique is ‘mindfulness of breath.’ I practice it regularly and find it extremely relaxing. 

In Transcendental Meditation and similar techniques, you repeat a mantra silently in your mind. This mantra can be any word – e.g., you can just repeat ‘calm’ again and again, focusing on the word. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back.

Also, I recommend loving-kindness meditation. It involves offering good wishes to others and is a great way to build kindness and positivity. It helps purge your mind of enmity, anger, and other negative emotions, which can cause low moods and depression.

12. Deep work and flow

One way to beat the feeling of low and helplessness is to generate a sense of progress in life. Working with full focus on something that matters to you can be immensely calming. Also, when you make progress, it can give you a high. 

Furthermore, doing focused work can help create the flow state where we are so deeply absorbed in the activity that we lose track of time and our own selves. Flow is a fantastic experience and can enhance our sense of well-being. 

So set a timer for 50 min, and work on a task that matters to you with switching attention. See what happens when you do that!

13. Avoid alcohol and drugs

Alcohol is a depressive you should strictly avoid if you feel depressed or have felt so in the past. Other drugs also cause immense harm to your mind and body and can worsen your mental health. Drugs like cocaine destroy the dopamine receptors and can make it harder for addicts to experience any kind of pleasure. Hence please avoid these things scrupulously. 

So that’s it for now. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list but it should be enough to get started. 

Remember – all the theory in the world is useless unless we translate it into action. So pick a few things from the above and start acting on them. 

I wish you good times and hope that the dark clouds of depression never come into your life, and if they do, they lift very quickly. Good luck, and stay in touch. 

Rajan

***

The author, Rajan Singh, is the founder of HabitStrong.

HabitStrong Newsletter by Rajan Singh

In this fortnightly newsletter, Rajan shares inspiring lessons and stories from his career as an IPS officer, McKinsey consultant, investor, and now, as a startup founder. Join 25,000+ subscribers.

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