Get Moving ,
Mediterranean Diet ,
Lifestyle change is the key to living free from
chronic low mood.
When I understood that the crushing sense of sadness, frustration and disappointment I had experienced for so long was a result of stress caused by an unbalanced lifestyle, I set about putting the imbalance to rights.
I looked at each area of my life and made a decision about how I could make things better. After I had my moment of anger about the depression returning I set about finding solutions that were based in lifestyle change.
This is what I came up with:
How I got more active
It was clear from my reading that doing regular exercise is a wonderful anti-depressant and this put me in a quandary because I loathe exercise. This was one lifestyle change I was going to find difficult.
It’s not that I don’t like moving; I don’t mind walking and I used to ride a bike regularly in China, but I hate the idea of just walking on a treadmill, or a stationary bike, or lifting weights or even playing sport (I’m so unco-ordinated). Dr Ilardi suggests that we find it difficult going to the gym because we take a look at the stationary bikes, for example, and our brain says ‘Nooo, don’t get on…you’re not going anywhere!’¹
It seems that for the unmotivated, like me, exercise is done better with a sense of purpose and not just the purpose of fitness, even mental health. For me, exercise has to be linked to something useful or productive. So I had to incorporate my exercise into my everyday life.
However, while I was living in northern China, so much of the year is bitterly cold that it’s difficult to do outdoor exercise. So I joined a gym. I used the weight machines and treadmills but after that I did something fun; I took a dance class, salsa or Mongolian dancing. I made the ‘boring’ workout more interesting by taking upbeat music or an interesting podcast, but what I was looking forward to was the dancing.
Walking in the park…get some sunshine, some fresh air and a much brighter mood!
Home in Melbourne, it was interesting how I began to slip back into my old ways, taking the car most places and being busy at work, not taking time to exercise after work. As the effect of not doing regular exercise became noticeable again in my mood, I was determined not to be so sedentary. I had to make this lifestyle change to resist the increasingly low mood.
I couldn’t think of anything worse than being stuck inside a gym, so I bought some tiny second-hand weights and walked in the park a few times each week.
The more I walked the better I felt and I began to incorporate more walking into my everyday life, leaving the car at home and using local facilities.
How I ate better:
When I was low in mood, I ate a lot of stodge; bread, pasta and rice.
I mostly did this because I didn’t have much money and meals were often pasta with tomatoes or commercially made paste, macaroni and cheese, rice with chicken in curry sauce out of a jar, or sausages and onion gravy.
I grew up understanding that a balanced diet is important and tried to eat fruit each week, but somehow the depression left me craving carbohydrate laden foods, and the sugar! Oh, I ate chocolate, cake and doughnuts often. I also ate a lot of fast food when I just couldn’t be bothered cooking.
Back then I really didn’t understand the connection between mood and food and that the foods I was choosing and the meals I was creating may have been keeping my mood depressed.
When I went to China, I knew I had to start eating better. I had to make a dietary lifestyle change. I was in a new country with a new start in life. I was determined to do things differently and set about finding sources of food that would sustain my health.
Next to the campus where I was teaching was a small collection of shops and I discovered a tiny fruit and vegetable shop owned by a smiley lady. Her shop was dark and the fruit and vegetables were stacked untidily around the walls. I choose carrots and beans, tomatoes and eggplants, onions and garlic, apples and watermelon. Other fruits and vegetables were obtained from the huge supermarkets in town.
My only concern was getting enough protein. Chinese butchers tend to sell the whole animal (it seems) and I’m no good at home-butchering. With no language skills I found myself having to make do with canteen meals containing meat and cooking vegetarian. In time I found a meat counter at one of the bigger supermarkets where I could use hand gestures to show I wanted a small portion of beef, for example (and some fatty minced pork for the various dogs I was forever adopting).
I also found tinned tuna, eggs and yoghurt, so that covered some of my protein and calcium requirements.
By the time I got back to Australia, I was eating a low-meat, high vegetable diet, though I still chose pasta and rice with most meals. Yes, changing my diet was an easy lifestyle change to make.
One thing I really missed in China was fresh herbs and spices to add flavour to my cooking. I had Chinese flavourings, sure, but I really missed fresh basil, rosemary, oregano, parsley and chives as well as spices.
When I moved from northern China to a city more centrally located, Xian, I had access to a wider variety of foods and I even found fresh basil. It was a bit wilted but I snapped it up with glee. It was the only time I found it; that supermarket had always run out whenever I returned. I adore the smell of basil; it transports me to exotic countries where the days are mellow and the sun is hot. China was fascinating, but my heart lies further west, around the Mediterranean.
I love the fresh, delicious tastes of Mediterranean cooking.
When I returned to Melbourne from China I started my new teaching job at the university. It was busy and there was much to think about. I was trying to get my head around the curriculum, plan lessons, attend meeting and do assessments; things that were never needed in China because as a foreign English teacher, all these requirements were left up to me.
I began to feel the stress of the job mounting up and my mood dipping again.
I started to buy comfort foods on the way to or from work. Stopping in a fast food restaurant for a sausage and egg breakfast burger seemed a treat which sweetened the start of the work day. Going home, tired out and unhappy, I’d stop for a Chinese take away so I didn’t have to cook.
I heard my mother’s voice in my ear, ‘Carrots make you see well in the dark’ and ‘Fish is good for the brain’ and I knew my health would suffer if I continued down this path to my old, depressed ways of eating.
Somewhere I heard about the Mediterranean Diet and set about reading more.
The more I discovered, the more excited I became. Not only does the Mediterranean Diet have significant health advantages, it’s emphasis on fish and plant based foods is also very important for brain health. Not only that, the recipes just looked delicious.
I read further and knew that the Mediterranean Diet would be a perfect fit and an easy lifestyle change to make with its simple combinations of foods and flavours. Some meals could be frozen for convenience, but the added bonus from doing more cooking was that I was feeling like I was really taking care of myself and preparing meals was very satisfying, an accomplishment whereas before cooking and eating was more of a chore and definitely didn’t make me feel very good.
In the past I was focussed on just not being hungry and buying cheap, filling foods that were not enjoyable to prepare and even less enjoyable to eat.
Now, I was loving the preparation of the food, absolutely delighted by the look of the dishes with their bright colours and textures and loving eating the new, fresh flavours. My mood was definitely improving as a result of this important, dietary lifestyle change.
How I started sleeping better
My major stressors have always been work and where I’ve noticed the effect the most is in my sleep patterns.
Trying to build a business with seriously low mood is a recipe for disaster and I spent every evening dreading the long night time hours when I’d like awake, staring at the walls, tears often coursing down my face.
When I closed the business and retrained as an English teacher, that source of stress evaporated. I felt confident teaching in China, but when I returned to Australia, I found the teaching much more difficult and I slowly felt the stress creeping back.
As my stress around work increased, I got less and less sleep. My thoughts whirled around in my head. I had a particularly difficult class, with younger students who were disruptive in class, low motivation and poor participation.
Despite loving teaching in China, I began to wonder why on earth I had chosen to teach English as a second language. I had envisaged a class of adults, who were all keen to learn, who were courteous and determined. Instead, I had older teens (an age group I know nothing about) who were learning English under duress, were surly, bored and aggressive.
I went to bed each night dreading the next day. I found myself more and more weepy and unable to turn off the thoughts that invaded my mind each night when I laid my head on the pillow. I woke groggy and grumpy. Things were not going well for my mood.
My level of exercise had dropped and I was probably not physically tired enough to fall asleep easily. Not only that, but my internal body clock was out of whack. I was sleeping too late and finding it very difficult to wake up in the morning. I wasn’t spending enough outdoors to reset my body clock.
Your brain does important cleaning work while you’re sleeping; make sure you’re getting enough!
It was imperative that I learned to relax more and switch off those thoughts. It was imperative that I made sleeping better a lifestyle change urgently.
I went back to Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), a strategy for dealing with troubling thoughts and feelings I had learned many years before. This involves stimulating the traditional Chinese acupuncture points using the fingers instead of needles. Tapping on various parts of the face and upper body while stating emotions out loud clears the negativity held in the body by these emotions. I’m not entirely sure how it works, perhaps it just distracts us from our thoughts.
Each night I wrote out the problems or challenges I had experienced during the day and used this calming practice to soften my feelings about them. Writing out the problems I had had and also planning for the next day, not in detail, just in note form, helped to get those thoughts out of my head.
Then I took a warm shower and used lavender scented soap. I had a hot milk drink and read for about 30 minutes before turning of the light.
Lying in the dark, it did take some effort to shut off the thinking and I used mindfulness (especially of the breath) and relaxation techniques. With practice, these techniques were effective and I found myself dropping off into sleep more easily and remaining asleep during the night.
Getting out in the sunshine while having breakfast or early morning tea or coffee helped reset my body clock and dimming the lights around the house, switching off the computer and television and ensuring my room was cool and dark enough also improved the quality of my sleep. This is a simple lifestyle change that can make all the difference to your mood and daytime functioning.
How I started socialising more
I am a private, introverted person. With the exception of my 20s when I lived in shared houses, I have always lived alone. I enjoy and need time alone.
At university I went to parties or the pub and mostly enjoyed those occasions, but I usually had a sense of discomfort, of not being able to fully participate, of feeling a bit ‘on the outside’. I think this was a lack of confidence. I didn’t feel as witty or attractive as my friends (though they never intentionally made me feel like this; I have lovely friends!); instead I felt rather dull, uninteresting and serious.
I longed for more intimate gatherings in quiet venues with just a few close friends who shared similar interests as I did, without all the stress of going to parties.
As my mood dropped, the idea of meeting up with friends was something I began to dread. I felt terrible about myself and was convinced I’d make terrible company. At work I was around people constantly and I found it draining. When I got home I was greeted warmly by my dog and felt I needed no other companionship than my faithful, non-judgemental furry bear.
Nonetheless, there was something that made me long to share some part of my life with others and I think it was for that reason that I enjoyed the appointments with the psychologist. We had a cup of tea together and chatted about life. I also felt oddly comforted by the occasional visits of the local Seventh Day Adventist lady, Lorraine. Her gentle outreach lifted my mood.
So it was clear that to live without depression, some kind of social interaction was necessary and important.
This was another lifestyle change I was going to find difficult.
After I lost my job twice in three years I set up my own paralegal consultancy offering immigration advice. I had few clients but had read about the power of networking. In a moment of rare energy I found a local small business networking group in a neighbouring suburb and joined up.
We met weekly in a café for breakfast and to discuss business matters. I usually felt a tremendous sense of trepidation and anxious nervousness before the meetings. After all, I wasn’t a successful businesswoman by any means. Rather, at the beginning I felt a bit of an imposter, a fraud.
Nonetheless, I got myself up and dressed nicely and headed off in the early morning light to our café. The people were very friendly and welcoming and overall I enjoyed these gatherings very much, even if they didn’t contribute greatly to the growth of my business! It helped develop my identity as a business person and was a great lifestyle change, giving me interaction with like-minded small business people.
I also began to think about how much I had enjoyed dance in my life. From daggy jazz ballet classes at school and flamenco lessons in my 20s, I had always enjoyed moving to music. There was always a sense of not being very good at it, of self-consciousness and fear of what others may think, but I enjoyed it enough to go to classes regularly.
There’s something incredibly joyful about dance!
I found a small local salsa class and started to go to the casual classes they offered. It was tiny, only about six of us were there at any given class. This suited me perfectly. I got to know the core group and become comfortable with them, even venturing out to clubs with them sometimes.
Looking back, this gave me many of the things you need for a anti-depressant lifestyle; friends and human contact, exercise and for me it was much more ‘cultural’ and meaningful than bopping about on a nightclub dancefloor where people are mostly showing off. This was a really important lifestyle change as it reconnected me with something I loved.
When invitations to coffee or meals out came from friends I still found myself dreading the approaching date. It took quite a long time for me to feel comfortable with more than a small handful of my very closest friends. I’m not sure why this should be. I know I did compare my life with theirs, my constant career changes with their steady rises up the professional ladder, my material possessions with theirs.
Before I headed off to China I had a small party to say goodbye to my loved ones and that was fun. When in China, it’s impossible to be alone for long (it’s a collectivist society where the group is paramount and your employer treats you like parents, regularly calling you to be involved in various activities including dinners). I made friends with my teaching colleagues, both foreign and Chinese and also with the students. I also got to know people who worked at the gym I attended and who had good English as well as through a book group I joined. My years in China were very social.
Back in Australia, my work kept me interacting with people, but it was my job that started to stress me out and I began to notice my life outside work began to be affected. I longed for the weekend when I could be alone. I started house-sitting for people who were away on their holidays, looking after their dogs and once again canine company was enough for me.
This was the time when I noticed my mood dropping and my thoughts turning more negative and before they could take a hold of me, I realised what was happening and that’s when I began my hunt for a solution, particularly in lifestyle change.
How I started living a more meaningful life
What do I mean by a ‘more meaningful life’? I’m not a philosopher, but what I mean by a ‘more meaningful life’ is one that is satisfying, that is rewarding, that makes you feel good.
My career path has been one of twists and turns. Every eight years or so I come to a cross-roads in my working life and find I need a change for some reason. At times I envy those people who have one set course in life and know what it is from early on. They know from childhood that all they ever wanted to do was be a nurse or a teacher or run their own business. I never had that. All I knew was that I was fascinated by the world, its history, cultures and peoples.
Take time to reflect on your values and what gives meaning to your life.
So I went to university and studied archaeology. I wasn’t particularly bothered by the fact that there are few jobs in archaeology world-wide, let alone in Australia. I was happy in the world of 3000BC. To keep myself alive I temped. In the year I took off in between my third and fourth years I did a reception training course, learned how to type and answer phones, and started temping which stood me in good stead on and off for decades after that. I didn’t enjoy the work, but it wasn’t dreadful either.
By the time I finished my doctorate in archaeology I was so demoralised that I turned away from the field I had so enjoyed and retrained in immigration law.
Wow! Archaeology to immigration law. That’s a bit of a leap, isn’t it? Yes, but in my mind the link is an interest in people and culture.
I got a job where I could hear different languages spoken all around me and engage in cultural traditions and customs from around the world. This was one of the things that had attracted me to archaeology; the fact that I could travel and excavate in fascinating parts of the world. So while it wasn’t life BC, it was still an area that I loved.
But the community sector is poorly funded and for this reason I found myself without work twice in fairly rapid succession and for this reason thought that working for myself might be the solution. Of course I had no business experience and found it extremely difficult and this is when I might have experienced an episode of more severe depression.
When I finally got professional help with my ‘low mood’, I decided that perhaps I should wind up the business and when my dog died, I knew it was time for a lifestyle change. There I was at another crossroads.
By this stage I thought I was just strange, a person who felt disconnected from the rest of my friends and family who had been in their work for some years, were starting to buy apartments, marry and start families. In contrast, my life looked totally different. In fact I felt I hadn’t really grown up and was still living like a university student.
Heading to China to teach English as a Second Language I felt like this was my last career, the thing I was meant to be doing with my life. I had a wonderful three years in China, developing my skills as a teacher, making friends, visiting fascinating places and recovering my sense of equilibrium. It was as though I had had a clean slate from which to start the rest of my life. I returned to Australia refreshed and ready to start teaching in Melbourne.
I got a job at a university in Melbourne in their English language centre. I felt like a fish out of water. I was still teaching, but the curriculum was set, the exams were prepared for me and the marking rubric used to grade them, I had to work with another teacher and attend meetings, CPD training sessions and basically found myself in way over my head.
I put a smile on my face and got on with the job, but it became clearer as the years went by that I was unhappy and feeling increasing stressed at work for a number of reasons.
I made a decision. I stopped caring about what other people thought of my working life and slowly slid out of the job. I was slowly coming to peace with my lifestyle, the life that society does not usually accept as normal. I began to think of myself as interesting, resilient and adventurous.
Now it’s your turn…
What can you do, today, this moment or this week to start putting your life back in order? What kinds of lifestyle change can you make to live a more fulfilling, enjoyable life?
I’ll let you know right here…
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(1) Ilardi, S, 2010 The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs, Da Capo Lifelong Books.