How Can We Help?
A Cure for Depression
While we are on the topic of depression, I want to tell you about a book I read that I think should be mandatory reading for anyone going through depression. The name of the book is “The Depression Cure—The 6 Step program to Beat Depression without Drugs” by Stephen S. Ilardi Ph.D. The author is a clinical psychologist who wanted to find every possible aid he could for his patients with depression. In sifting through the huge amount of scientific research that has been done on depression, he found six methods of treatment that had proven very effective and were so easy to put into effect that even someone in the midst of depression could put them to use.
Two things leaped out to me as I read the book. First, he sites research that shows that depression is an enormous epidemic in the modern world. Despite our many advances, the number of reported cases of depression has increased 10 times in the last generation. And that isn’t just true in America, it’s happening in every industrialized nation. The only exception in the USA is among the Amish, where depression is very rare and is not increasing. The rate of depression is also very low in third world countries, but as they modernize, it rapidly increases. Finally he points out that depression is virtually non-existent in primitive hunter-gather groups. His conclusion is that we evolved to live in a certain way, and the further we depart from that way of life, the more depressed we become.
That is a conclusion I have long held to be absolute gospel truth. In fact nearly everything I do as a vandweller I do with the idea of living as close as I possibly can to my ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors. Vandwelling has made me a much happier, healthier person and I believe it will do that for everyone who tries it. In fact, I found I have been intuitively following all 6 steps he outlines for as long as I have been a vandweller.
That leads me to the second thing that struck me about the steps he outlines: they are all just common sense. Nearly all of them are something that mothers have been telling their children for a very long time:
1) Get aerobic exercise: “Go outside and play.”
2) Get enough sunlight: “Go outside and do your chores.”
3) Eat a balanced diet: “Eat your vegetables.”
4) Be an active part of a community: “Make friends.”
5) Watch your thoughts for negativity: “Relax, cheer up, everything is going to be all right.”
6) Get enough sleep: “It’s bedtime, go to bed.”
Probably every single one of us can remember our mothers saying these things to us. It’s ancient wisdom that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did every single day of their lives by necessity and was handed down mother-to-child every since. But modern living conspires to keep us from doing all of them. In fact most of us are doing the exact opposite of every one of them. Go down that list and ask yourself how well you are doing with them. If you don’t like the answers, then you are at an increased risk of depression; so when life throws you hardship (like a loss of a job, divorce, death in the family, or just the incredible number of hassles and irritants we all face each day) you can’t cope with it and are thrown into a depression. That’s just what happened to me and I firmly believe that the fact that I live these 6 things every day is what kept me alive through it.
He explains that there is an abundance of research proving each one of these as proven techniques to reduce depression, but that taken together (especially under the guidance of a trained professional) they will cure depression. That is a bold claim, but based on my own personal experience, I believe him.
I can’t do justice to the 6 Steps in a brief blog post, but let me very briefly go over them:
1) Get aerobic exercise: Many, many studies have shown that exercise reduces depression and elevates mood. When you consider the amount of exercise that our ancestors got every day, it makes perfect sense that to suddenly stop getting any exercise would be very bad for us. In fact, studies have shown that exercise is more effective than many anti-depressant drugs. It doesn’t have to be hard or unpleasant; all he suggests is that you do a half hour of aerobic exercise three times a week. Even brisk walking will work as long as you walk fast enough for it to be aerobic. The more fun it is, the more likely you are to stick with it. If you can do with it with other people it works even better to reduce depression.
2) Get enough sunlight: it is a proven scientific fact that a lack of sunlight causes depression and that simply increasing it will reduce depression. Humans evolved by spending virtually every day outside and our bodies expect and literally need it. Even in the early 1900s most people spent some time outside in the sun, but today we spend almost none. If you live in a place where getting natural sunlight is difficult, then getting a light box will work just as well and in many ways is easier.
3) Take supplements (especially Fish Oil) to make up for an unbalanced diet: In a great deal of research, a lack of Omega 3 fatty acids and an excess of Omega 6 fatty acid causes the brain to fall into a depressed state. Omega 6 comes from grains and since our ancient ancestors ate very few grains (but lots of fish and grass-fed meat) they maintained a healthy balance. Generally, you and I eat the exact opposite. We eat a huge amount of grains filled with Omega 6 and very few Omega 3s. That throws the balance totally off and is making us depressed The fact that most of us probably aren’t going to eat better (especially if we are already depressed) means that the best, easiest and simplest way is to take supplements. He gives specific recommendations of how much fish oil (filled with Omega 3), vitamin D and C to take. Ironically, I had been taking everything he recommends for many years, but after I fell into a depression I stopped taking them and could not bring myself to start again. It’s almost like the depression knew it would help and wouldn’t let me take it. As soon as I read this book, and started taking it again, I felt better the very next day!!
4) Be an active part of a community: Human beings are pack animals! Maybe you don’t want to think of yourself that way, but that doesn’t make it less true. Humans (and our pre-human ancestors) all lived in tribes of 50-100 people. If they didn’t, if they were alone, they died, period. But suddenly, today we are a culture of isolation. There is a huge amount of research proving that our social connectedness is dissolving, and we are becoming a nation of loners. That loneliness makes it much easier for us to fall into depression. We are in a desperate catch-22 situation; our isolation causes us to be depressed, and one of the strongest symptoms of depression is to isolate yourself further, which just deepens the depression.
The fact you are here at this blog and other sites is an encouraging sign, it says you want to reach out and make a connection and be part of a community. The author gives many great suggestions on how to do that and break out of the vicious cycle of isolation=>depression=>isolation, and so on endlessly. Let me recommend just two of the most important here. First he suggests you join forums that are designed for people suffering from depression:
Second he strongly encourages you to volunteer with a charitable organization. Humans were designed to love and care for others (that’s the only way the tribe could survive) and in the process of volunteering you may find the depression decreasing. It also breaks the isolation that almost comes with depression. Just handing out soup at a soup kitchen or sorting clothes at a shelter, will probably make you feel better.
It doesn’t matter what the organization is, as long as it’s something you care about and you are serving others in some way. It doesn’t have to be people, you can volunteer at the local ASPCA shelter and take care of animals, even if it is as simple as taking dogs for a walk to get them out of their cages. Or you can volunteer to work on trails in parks. Those have the multiple benefits of being outdoors, getting some sun and exercise, as well as spending time with others. Here is a wonderful site that can help you find the perfect place to volunteer.
5) Watch your thoughts for negativity: Our brain is hard-wired to repeatedly play negative events over-and-over again in our minds. That worked well for us as cavemen, but not anymore. For example, when one of the tribe was eaten by a tiger, thinking about what went wrong could keep us alive next time. But in today’s modern world with its constant, continual, minor hassles and stresses, it has become a very destructive thing. Psychologists even have a name for it, they call it rumination. It’s like there is a record in your head and the same sad song repeats endlessly. The tapes make us feel steadily worse, and yet we feel helpless to break out of it. We all do it to some degree, but the depressed brain literally creates neural pathways so it very hard to turn off the record player. Knowledge is power, so just understanding that what you are going through is normal (and the science behind it) is a very good start on finding peace of mind. Then the author gives a simple two-step plan to help a depressed person break the repeated cycle of negative thoughts. It isn’t easy, but if you want to feel better again, you can do it.
6) Get enough sleep: By now we all know that sleep is vital to our mental and physical health and that not getting enough sleep leads to a steady decline to both, and carried to an extreme, even to death. And yet most of us don’t get enough sleep and think somehow we are the exception to the rule and it won’t hurt us. It’s true that some people need less than others, but nearly all of us can benefit from more. The author gives simple, practical steps to sleeping more and better.
I wish you all the very best. Bob