"Lifestyle changes to improve and prevent symptoms of depression and anxiety."
I knew he’d run the other way if I jumped too quickly into a medical referral or diagnosis, so we started with the most human approaches — connecting about what was really going on for him, and exploring readily available lifestyle changes that aligned with his interest, motivation, and values. Within weeks, his spark started to come back, and within months he felt he had a new lease on life. He wasn’t suddenly happy all the time. But he felt a new sense of his capacity to take charge of his mental health.
Will everyone have an outcome like Roy from lifestyle changes? Definitely not — anxiety and depression are complex conditions with tremendous individual variation, varied underlying causes, and varied levels of severity. But can everyone benefit from learning the foundation for how to care for their mind either separately or as an adjunct to professional treatment? I believe so.
The following seven health behaviors are key ones linked to prevention or symptom improvement of anxiety and depression.
While everything on this list is simple, it’s far from easy. Change is hard. And if you currently have depression or anxiety, it can be especially challenging. That’s why one of the key behaviors is being kind to yourself.
If moved to do so, choose one area to work on at a time, perhaps an area you feel especially motivated or confident to address, or an area that feels aligned with your most important values. Then take it one step at a time. The funny thing about change is we often don’t know it’s happening, we just keep rowing in the right direction, and usually after a few, or a few thousand, twists and turns, we look back in awe at how far we’ve come.
While 10-18% of adults in the U.S. experience chronic sleep issues, this number jumps to 65-90% of those with depression, and over 50% of those with generalized anxiety disorder. Of those with depression, 65% had sleep issues first. Addressing sleep issues can alleviate symptoms of mental health conditions, and given sleep problems are a risk factor for mental health conditions, can also help protect your mental health.
There are many resources to help improve your sleep, such as this free app.
A disposition that tends towards self-critical, or perfectionistic, can be a risk factor for anxiety and depression. This can include feeling like you must be perfect to be accepted, an inability to accept flaws within yourself, intense self-scrutiny, or an unrealistic sense of others’ expectations and your capacity to meet them.
Despite the fear of many who have this characteristic, the antidote to perfectionism isn’t letting it all go, or saying goodbye to standards – it’s self-compassion. According to researcher Kristen Neff, self-compassion has three components: self-kindness vs. self-judgment, common humanity vs. isolation, mindfulness vs. overidentification. How we treat ourselves through the ups and downs of life can have a tremendous impact on health and mental health.
3. Social Connection
From the time we are born, we need social connection in order to thrive.
A recent study lead by researchers at Harvard sought to understand what could most protect us from depression that is within our control. After analyzing over 100 potential factors, they found that social connection was by far the most important protective factor.
It’s been a lonely year for many. And many are anxious at the prospect of going back to normal. But connection doesn’t mean a big party or bustling office. It can be confiding in one trusted person about how you’re really doing, listening to how someone else is really doing, giving a meaningful thank you, or having a (safe) visit with any family member or friend. If this feels out of reach, try making a short list of people who at any point have given you a sense of belonging. Other studies have shown that just calling positive relationships to mind can have a positive impact on our capacity to tolerate stress."