Have you been struggling with depression? Are you wondering if there’s a solution out there that doesn’t involve you popping pills? This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and with approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem each year and 1 in 6 people experiencing a common mental health problem such as depression or anxiety in any given week, it’s time to talk about whether there is a way to beat depression that doesn’t involve a prescription.
Introducing Miriam Akthar whose new book Positive Psychology for Overcoming Despression seeks to explore exactly that. Having tried anti-depressants as a solution to her depression and discovering they did nothing for her with some horrible side-effects in the mix, at her lowest point she once ended up in A&E having a terrifying sensation which was like being in a shower – otherwise known as a tactile hallucination.
When counselling and simply talking about unhappiness didn’t help, she began to wonder if the science of happiness could offer something and discovered that the practices that raise well-being can also act as natural anti-depressants. Today, although shy to admitting to being an expert in happiness with a history of depression, she believes she has optimised a level of approximately 40% of happiness – a huge shift change from coming from a starting point of depression. So how did she make this change? Today I have Miriam on the blog to share her thoughts on exactly that, and how you can do it too if you struggle with depression.
Is depression something that can be “beaten” in your view?
Yes I do think it is possible. In my own experience it is over ten years since my last episode of depression and I have never gone back to that state of despair I used to frequently occupy. That’s because I’ve got a decade of practice of using positive psychology tools such as savouring and gratitude to grow my well-being and I’ve been practising optimism for as long. The practice is key – it’s what forms new neural connections and makes a habit out of happiness. Neuroscience has shown that the brain is malleable,things are more flexible than fixed. It is possible to rewire the brain and the more you use the techniques the more ‘what fires together wires together’. Life will continue to send you experiences that test your resilience but it’s definitely possible. I don’t think you can be complacent though – it is a habit you need to develop and maintain.
Do you think one thing alone can help alleviate depression?
There are many different symptoms of depression and as many cures too. If we look at two of the major symptoms – practices like savouring, gratitude and optimism can help you feel better. Knowing and using your strengths can help you function better. My no 1 tip though isn’t psychological but physical. Exercise, any form that you find more of a pleasure than a pain, can give you an instant mood lift without performing any mental gymnastics and helps to prevent depression and stop relapses.
What was the turning point for you in helping to combat depression?
It was the day my dishwasher broke down and I ended up with a flooded kitchen. I’d spent months dwelling on how unhappy I was and talking things over in therapy, but I wasn’t getting better. I was drowning in unhappiness. So I decided that I had to try something different so I began to focus my energies onto the things that made me feel good.
Can you share what three things you do every day to help you keep depression at bay? How much self discipline does it take?
Below is my maintenance diet. Self-regulation is not one of my strengths! Actually it’s my ‘lowest strength’! But I do know these practices work so if I find my mood going downhill, I know it’s the cue to get back in the saddle and do the things I know will make me feel better.
Depression Maintenance Diet
Something physical. “Not exercising is like taking depressants” according to psychologist Tal Ben Shahar. For an instant mood boost I take a walk around the local park if the weather’s good or bounce up and down on my mini-trampoline to 3 minutes of classic pop when it’s not.
Something to appreciate. Every day I hunt the good stuff and reflect on the positives that have happened. Once a week I write my gratitude journal. It is these two practices that together helped me shift from a mindset of lack to abundance.
Something to savour. I now get so much pleasure from anything good that comes along. From a square of exquisite chocolate to a beautiful piece of music can transport me to a happy place. The secret is to slow down, put your focus on what you’re savouring and use your senses to get the full flavour of a positive experience.
And what happens if you don’t do those things?
If I don’t do them there’s a risk of being sucked into the downwards spiral to depression. I know the signs – mood goes downhill, starting to think negatively and feel hopeless, withdrawing and not wanting to see people.
What are your thoughts on happiness – is it real?
Yes, absolutely. You’re talking to a positive psychologist! The thing is that there are different types of happiness and the one we’re most familiar with (hedonic happiness) is the one that we tend to try and hold onto but can’t! Hedonic happiness is about the feel-good factor, where you experience an abundance of positive emotions from the top notes like bliss to those quieter positive emotions like calm and tranquillity. Positive emotions are short-lived so they’re here one moment and gone the next. The other type of happiness – eudaimonic well-being – is the deeper happiness about having meaning and purpose in life. It’s about you at your best. This is the form of happiness which looks more like contentment and is more sustainable than hedonic happiness.
And how can we be truly happy?
We absolutely can. I think the key is to lower your expectations, change what you can change, accept what you can’t and remember that you can choose how you respond to the events of your life. Of course it is harder when you’re in depression but it is possible. The techniques I describe in my book to recover your well-being are the very same ones that raise your well-being. Practices like savouring, gratitude, optimism, playing to your strengths, mindfulness, nurturing relationships and being physical all come with scientific backing. I can get so much joy out of savouring a happy moment. It’s about training the mind to notice what’s good and maximise enjoyment of it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Be patient. The recovery from depression is a slow process – I liken it to a dimmer switch turning on the light. It may be a while before you realise that a change is occurring. Also that the world is full of kind people to reach out to. Depression is an isolating experience but if you do something social, it will feed your well-being and act as a distraction from your distress. There’s lots more I could say but it’s all there in my book – Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression.
Do you struggle with depression? What do you think about Mariam’s advice above? Do share in a comment below.
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