Small Adjustments Add Up
Imagine you come home one night, and instead of sitting on the sofa watching Netflix, you decide to call an old friend. Your friend invites you to play squash the next day, which keeps you from procrastinating at work so that you can log off at five to meet your friend. Thanks to the workout, you sleep particularly well, and you get up the next day happy and energized.
The above is an example of an “upward spiral.” It works the same way as a downward spiral, just in the opposite direction. This book summary explains how can induce your own upward spiral through small behavioral changes that sure will add up:
A neuroscientist offers sound tactics for coping with, minimizing and warding off depression.
Neuroscientist Alex Korb, PhD, explains why yoga, socializing and showing gratitude – plus good sleep, exercise and better habits – matter. He describes in detail how your brain and body communicate and how your body releases neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin when you take positive actions to reduce stress, improve your mood and fight depression. While never giving medical advice, we finds that Korb’s book will be especially useful for people that are new to the topic.
- Almost everyone suffers from stress, worry and anxiety, which can trigger depression.
- With practice, you can manage and control the symptoms of depression.
- Exercise puts the brakes on or reverses a downward cycle of depression.
- Reduce worrying by activating your thinking brain to make plans that address the concerns behind your anxiety.
- Get sufficient, high-quality sleep. Lack of enough sleep or good sleep is a major contributor to depression.
- Changing bad habits can help you reduce or avoid depression permanently.
- Fight depression by practicing age-old, proven yoga techniques.
- Express gratitude often, no matter how dire your circumstances or how deep your depression.
- Don’t isolate yourself. Force yourself to spend time with others, even if only with strangers in a coffee shop.
- Sometimes you can benefit from the help of a professional or the aid of prescription medication.
Almost everyone suffers from stress, worry and anxiety, which can trigger depression.
Some people, due to their unique neurobiology, are more susceptible and sensitive to stress and other triggers. If they don’t take measures to check and reverse temporary mild unease, it can gradually spiral into long-lasting and even severe depression. Recent science confirms that you can change your brain, which scientists refer to as “neuroplasticity.” Small adjustments, like going out in the sun, exercising, deep breathing, high-quality sleep and spending time with friends will trigger neurochemicals in your brain that can counter stress, worry and anxiety; lift your spirits and energy; and prevent or reverse depression.
“There’s no brain scan, MRI or EEG that can diagnose depression; it’s simply a by-product of the brain circuits we all have.”
The many billions of neurons in your brain form circuits that connect to each other through neurotransmitters. These chemicals, which relay messages from neuron to neuron, include serotonin, which affects your mood; dopamine, which gives pleasure; norepinephrine, which helps you focus; oxytocin, which relieves worry and stress; and endorphins, which regulate pain and generate euphoria.
Your brain consists of two main parts. The forward and most evolved part of your brain – the prefrontal cortex – helps you think, set goals, plan and make decisions. Your brain’s older, less evolved limbic system houses your instincts, feelings and emotions.
Your thinking brain makes a plan and then checks with your limbic system to learn how you feel about the plan. It repeats this process until your thoughts line up with your feelings – a harmony that makes you feel right. When something prevents the two parts of your brain from communicating effectively, you may experience symptoms of worry, anxiety and stress that could lead to depression.
With practice, you can manage and control the symptoms of depression.
Worry and anxiety resemble one another but come from different places. When you worry, you use your prefrontal cortex to think. Feeling anxious derives from your limbic system. Your thinking brain runs through scenarios when you worry about something. The two connect, your prefrontal cortex checks in with your feelings and you make a decision.
“It’s hard to explain exactly why you worry about some things, but you do, and it gets in the way of your well-being.”
To counter anxiety, you should acknowledge it, assess it and not assume the worst. Breathe deeply and focus on the now rather than on what might happen. These actions suppress activity in the amygdala – of the limbic system – and relieve anxiety.
Your brain pays attention to matters that strike an emotional chord. Negative emotions have the greatest impact, especially in depressed people. In depression, you sense hostility, rejection and anger – even when they aren’t present. You may start remembering things from the past in a negative light and feel pain more vividly. These elements – which feed off each other – can cause a “downward spiral,” deepening your depression and making it harder to break. Stopping and reversing the spiral as early as possible makes all the difference.
Exercise puts the brakes on or reverses a downward cycle of depression.
You probably don’t want to exercise when you feel down. Choose something you enjoy, maybe tennis or swimming. Perhaps exercise with a friend or pay for workout sessions ahead of time so you feel compelled to go. Attach your workouts to a purpose, like staying healthy so you can continue to play with your kids. Set incremental goals, like walking a mile or running a 5K. Start out small.
“To overcome depression, your brain needs to get off its lazy butt.”
Exercise will trigger an upward spiral. You’ll sleep better, gain focus and feel more like socializing. Exercise builds more neurons in your brain and stimulates the release of norepinephrine, dopamine and endorphins that put you in a better mood and reduce stress. Schedule exercise into your daily routine. If you have a sedentary job, get up frequently to walk around and take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Reduce worrying by activating your thinking brain to make plans that address the concerns behind your anxiety.
Planning diverts activity from your emotional limbic system. Good planning, decision-making and goal setting are superior to procrastination because making plans and decisions focuses your attention on important things and shields you from distractions. Few things contribute to happiness more than setting goals and achieving them. Dopamine fires as you take deliberate action toward your goals and as you reach each milestone toward a longer-term, larger goal.
“Making decisions changes your perception of the world – finding solutions to your problems and calming your limbic system.”
Set specific goals. Instead of telling yourself to “spend more time with my kids,” try saying “play board games with my kids every Sunday.” To get the reward, your brain needs to know you achieved a goal. Make your goals challenging but achievable. Align your long-term goals to your values. Decision-making snaps you out of your normal autopilot state and puts you in control, which reduces depression-causing stress. The more decisions you make, the more decisive you become – another virtuous cycle.
Get sufficient, high-quality sleep. Lack of enough sleep or good sleep is a major contributor to depression.
Too little sleep or poor-quality sleep harms you mentally and physically. It impairs your ability to focus and negatively affects your mood, stress levels and blood pressure. Good sleep makes you more decisive and a better decision maker. It allows your brain to make connections while you sleep that will improve your memory.
You sleep in cycles, starting with light sleep that grows gradually deeper. It ends in REM sleep, during which your brain ignites in activity. The five-stage cycle repeats about every 90 minutes as you sleep. In some people, the cycle skews toward more REM sleep, which can lead to depression.
To get sufficient good sleep, maintain your natural circadian rhythms of light and dark by avoiding light sources after dark – including screens. Try to keep your sleep and wake times as consistent as possible. Don’t engage your prefrontal cortex in thinking and planning just before bed. Try not to dwell on worries before trying to sleep. Eliminate noises – and even smells – from your bedroom to improve sleep quality. During the day, try to get lots of light, especially direct sunlight. All these steps improve the production and release of melatonin – which helps you get a good night’s sleep – and serotonin, which shortens REM sleep.
“Depression makes it harder to remember happy memories and easier to remember bad ones.”
Try to sleep for about eight hours continuous hours. Sleep in your bed, not on the sofa or elsewhere. Ban television and other devices from your bedroom. Create a routine such as brushing your teeth, washing your face and then reading for a short while before sleep. Try not to eat or drink other than a little water before bed. Exercise daily but not too soon before bed. Good sleep triggers a positive cycle. It reduces stress, which in turn aids in continued good sleep.
Changing bad habits can help you reduce or avoid depression permanently.
Habits have the benefit of causing you to do things without thought. With bad habits, this power works against you. Your brain’s striatum manages habits, but it doesn’t make value judgments about them. It does what you’ve always done, whatever that is. You form habits when you do something over and over again. They never disappear from your striatum, but you can displace them.
“The whole brain is just billions of neurons sending electrical signals that turn into chemical signals in order to communicate.”
If you feel stressed or worried, you may seek a means of coping. The easiest and most available coping strategies tend to hurt you in the long run – for example, overeating, binge-watching TV, taking drugs or drinking alcohol. At first, when you binge on junk food or drink to relieve your stress, your brain rewards you with a hit of dopamine. Gradually, you get that hit merely thinking about potato chips, a chocolate bar or a shot of whiskey. As you form a habit, you stop getting the reward; your brain doesn’t reward you anymore because your behavior becomes automatic.
Changing habits requires will and fortitude. Once a habit forms in your striatum, only your prefrontal cortex can displace it. Stress often triggers your coping response. The more you turn to coping strategies, the more your brain associates them with your stress, worry and anxiety. To manage the stress, avoid the triggers; for example, don’t hang out in a bar if your coping mechanism involves alcohol. Set goals, and keep at them. Make them specific; then persevere and regularly. Eventually, a new, good habit will form, displacing the old harmful one. Sufficient sunlight, relaxation and exercise will help you change your habits, as will good memories. All these factors release serotonin, which keeps you in a positive frame of mind.
Fight depression by practicing age-old, proven yoga techniques.
Yoga stretching and breathing will change your brain through biofeedback – that is, your body talking to your brain. Simply smiling – even if forced – can change your mood. Downtrodden posture and tight muscles can deepen depression. Generate positive biofeedback by exuding confidence in your posture and gestures, by smiling and laughing, or by playing your favorite music and singing along with it.
Relax your face and the muscles in your body, take deep breaths, and flex your muscles as you inhale and release them as you exhale. Breathe consciously, and inhale more deeply.
Express gratitude often, no matter how dire your circumstances or how deep your depression.
Feel appreciation for something as simple as a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. Gratitude has a greater positive impact on those in despair. You’ll feel better and healthier when you count your blessings.
Write down the things for which you feel grateful; tell people you appreciate them. Gratitude sparks the dopamine and serotonin that will make you feel better, improve your sleep and help you maintain a more positive outlook. Avoid heaping guilt and shame on yourself. Especially avoid comparing yourself with other people. Appreciate what you have, and share your gratitude toward others.
Don’t isolate yourself. Force yourself to spend time with others, even if only with strangers in a coffee shop.
When depressed, you might avoid others to protect yourself from the potential emotional and physical pain of exclusion and rejection. Because you feel badly about yourself, you assume others will, too. You probably perceive rejection much more than you encounter it. Put yourself out there. Don’t hide, or you’ll risk accelerating the downward spiral.
“Humans are a social species. We evolved to survive with each other, and our brains are healthiest when we interact with and feel connected to others.”
Connecting with others increases your production of oxytocin which, in turn, reduces stress, anxiety and hurt. People who are alone when they experience a physically painful event feel far more intense pain than those who experience the same thing in the presence of a friend or loved one. Spending time with close friends and family can ease your depression.
“Keep seeking interactions with others and be patient with yourself. Allow your brain time to rewire.”
Connect by phone, email, text or social media. Go out and talk with strangers, or volunteer for a good cause. Get a massage, which releases endorphins through physical contact. These activities boost your mood and reduce your stress. Surround yourself with happier people as their good vibes will spread. If you don’t have people who can keep you company, get a pet. Many of the benefits of social contact with people parallel the benefits of bonding with and spending time with animals.
Sometimes you can benefit from the help of a professional or the aid of prescription medication.
Possibly you need extra help. Medicine helps almost one-third of depression sufferers on the first try. Because everyone’s circuits connect differently, people have to try different drugs and dosages. Eventually, medication seems to help the majority of patients who try it, especially when used in combination with psychotherapy. Some people respond right away, while others may take months or years.
“Psychiatrists and psychologists…help modify the circuits in your brain and improve your access to happiness; increase your focus; and reduce stress, anxiety and depression.”
Everything in your brain and body works together as a system. The things you think, the habits you form, your therapy, medicines, exercise, sleep and social activity all affect each other, putting you in either an upward or a downward spiral. Knowing how your system works allows you to defend yourself against depression and lead a healthier, happier life.
About the Author
Neuroscientist Alex Korb, PhD, has made an academic and professional career out of understanding depression and the techniques and tools anyone can use to avoid or reverse it. His expertise extends into leadership and motivation, mindfulness, physical fitness, and even stand-up comedy.
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