I was sucked into what we loosely call depression. It’s a catch phrase for a range of conditions and illnesses that can be caused by as many kinds of reasons.
In the early stages of depression, I sought out advice from friends and close family.
“Stop overthinking,” they said.
But, their advice would irritate me.
“They just don’t get it,” I felt.
I had lost my father in my twenties but losing my mother in my thirties hit twice as hard, because that’s when I realized both of them were now no more. I was working hard to be successful but the great recession had just hit, my wife had just had our second child and our first child was just about turning ten. And for no apparent reason, a few months after my mother’s death I felt a cloud gradually gather around me, one that wouldn’t lift no matter what I tried.
My wife was close to delivering our second child. At the time, I was just about scraping through and our company announced a retrenchment exercise. I had not yet been fired, but the uncertainty was enough to tip me over. And it was only after my wife delivered that I told her I wanted to get help.
When I was depressed, I heard many opinions and suggestions as there were people.
“Little did I know that there was a hormonal and chemical link to my depression.”
I always imagined depression like in the movies, where you went to a shrink and he/she said the right thing and you got cured. Although, when I went to a therapist and then to a psychiatrist the journey was very different. My psychiatrist explained that all the psychological stress I was suffering from, the fear of the future and the anxieties of the present, were causing my body to secrete cortisol. Cortisol, I learnt, is a stress-response hormone. When you go through stressful events your body responds by secreting cortisol.
Cortisol is part of a completely natural flight or fight response system, which has been inbuilt in the human body. Cortisol is natural and necessary – it was what helped us escape predators and sense violent danger. With modern life, the cortisol response gets linked to smaller and smaller stimuli.
I learnt that when you’re constantly caught up in the fear of what the future might bring and you are constantly under overwhelming stress, then your levels of cortisol get elevated. This can wreak havoc on your body and mind.
“Elevated cortisol levels have been found to be a precursor for depression.”
My symptoms began with an inability to sleep. Then I would have constant unexplained mood swings, and be fatigued. My weight had increased and I had high blood pressure.
I was lucky to have a psychiatrist who was not happy with pushing drugs down my throat. He did use medication to bring me to a manageable state, he probably even slipped in some placebos, but I am glad he helped me move off them too.
He told me clearly one day: “A depression pill is a temporary fix, but does not hold any magic powers to take away the world’s problems. If you feel you cannot go on with antidepressant medication, always try to combine it with other positive changes in your lifestyle.”
“The most important way to bring your cortisol levels down is to focus on your diet and getting some physical exercise.”
The gut has come to be referred to as the second brain in science. One major area that has been of interest, is the fact that gut bacteria supplies your body with 95% of your supply of serotonin. Up until now you probably thought it was all in the brain! It is historically believed that all disease begins in the gut and modern studies are proving even mental disorders are affected by gut health.
I noticed over the period of getting off medication and getting onto a healthier lifestyle that, as far as my mood was concerned, the better I ate the better I felt. Turns out the balance of good and bad bacteria directly affects the communication between your brain and gut. And to have a good mix of bacteria in your gut you need to eat good clean food.
There’s no use overhauling your diet overnight or going cold turkey on your favorite foods. It doesn’t mean you have to live off lettuce leaves either! A much kinder approach is to take baby steps away from your ingrained habits. It is much more important in the beginning to add in healthier food options than it is to take away bad options. You can then slowly decrease your consumption of processed foods, where you give yourself a chance to experience the positive impact that your food choices have on your mood. Install the thought in your mind that you’ll begin using food as medicine.
So I went ahead, ate well, exercised, continued my treatment, took medicines sometimes and tapered off until finally, I feel like the cloud lifted.
Tackling depression is not a one-step process. It takes a unique set of approaches in many different areas to fight depression. The internet holds a wealth of knowledge when it comes to trying to understand your depression, but you should never feel ashamed to seek professional advice in finding ways to cope with depression.