Wellness Activities for Depression (1-4)

All wellness activities on this site can be interchanged with various symptoms. I've listed them in these categories simply because this is what they are most often used for. That means that they CAN be used for other illnesses and symptoms! 
       Perhaps because of the time of year it is, I have received many questions that revolve around how I was able to get started on my wellness journey without becoming overwhelmed or being filled with anxiety. Anytime I have charted a new, better path there has always been uncertainties and anxiety. I am no stranger to second guessing decisions while learning and implementing a new, better way to live.

       I have fantastic news, however! There is a simple solution to becoming overwhelmed or anxious due to plans that are new, big or that have to be changed due to unforeseen circumstances. It is to remember one word--WIN. W.I.N. is one of those annoying acronyms that stands for What's Important Now. The beautiful thing about this one is it actually works. 

       I read somewhere about how one of the greatest coaches of all time, Lou Holtz, always told his players to ask themselves this question throughout their day, what's important now? I scoffed at first. It seemed childlike and too simple to actually work. Thankfully, I remembered that contempt prior to investigation is the surest way to remain in everlasting ignorance, so I decided to try it. Over the years, I've found that many of life's most profound truths are also the simplest. W.I.N. is no exception. 

       I have written about how I schedule wellness activities to make sure I fit them in1, how I schedule healthy meals to ensure I eat correctly2 and how I live in day-tight compartments3 so that I can break down large tasks or objectives into more manageable pieces. Doing those three things helped keep me from getting overwhelmed or anxious. They were enormously helpful when I started my wellness journey (and they still are). Without them, I could have never made the changes I have made in my life. However, because of my conditions, there are times when they themselves can be overwhelming.  When I am starting something new, have a large project I am working on, or my plans fall apart, I have to step back and ask myself, what's important now? This question allows me to refocus and settle back into the moment. That's where I want to live, in the moment.  

       At the beginning of all the new chapters in my life, course corrections have had to be made. What I knew would work when I planned it on Sunday may have fallen apart by Wednesday afternoon. In the beginning, I don't know what I don't know until I know it. There is no reason to become discouraged, anxious or overwhelmed because of a setback or miscalculation. I have come to expect them. The only way I have found to stay ahead of discouragement, anxiety or feelings of being overwhelmed by those setbacks and miscalculations is by remembering the acronym W.I.N.

       Honestly, many of my best-laid plans have often fallen apart, due to miscalculations. My life story is full of failed plans and missteps. That is inevitable because I push myself to become the best possible version of me I can be. I want to grow and change. If I had decided long ago to remain the same, I would have been in a great deal of trouble. I have to grow. With my conditions, stagnation is dangerous. 

       Growing means change, and despite what many self-help gurus may say, I have found that change is difficult. Changing paths, so that I can live a better life, is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. Taking the time to write out my priorities, schedule wellness activities and healthy meals so that I can experience better mental and physical health takes effort. It turns out that doing those things, and making those changes, is still much easier than staying stuck living a life I don't like. I'll never say that making changes to attain better mental and physical health is easy, but I'll always say it's worth it.

       Change is hard because with it missteps, miscalculations, and temporary failures inevitably come. But I believe what the late, great John Wooden said: "Failure isn't fatal, but failure to change might be." That has certainly been my truth. 

       A wonderful example of how this philosophy played out in my life happened a few years ago. I had been training hard for a marathon for months. Two weeks before the race, I found out I had a serious stress fracture in my hip. I was devastated and overwhelmed with this new, harsh reality. Initially, I had no idea what to do. It took several days of sulking before I realized it was time to step back and ask myself what was most important at that time. In other words, what was I doing it all for in the first place?

       After several brutal days, I remembered. The reason I was training so hard and pushing myself was to improve my mental and physical health. When I remembered that, the answer to my problem became clear instantly. I knew what to do. I decided I would continue to exercise for mental and physical health by bicycling and doing circuit training on my upper body. I also decided that I would spend the extra time, not spent training, to have fun with my family and friends. I knew that doing so would give me a fantastic mental boost. I was right. Had I allowed myself to lose sight of what was the most important thing, I would have certainly been overrun with anxiety and the depression that accompanies hopelessness. That can be a dangerous place for me.

       Was I still upset that I missed the race? Yes, but honestly races are not my favorite thing. I simply love to run and exercise. I don't need the promise of a race bib or a medal to enjoy myself. Often, I have much more fun without those things! Focusing on what was important, given my new circumstances, allowed me to make the course corrections I needed to make. W.I.N. saved me from what was sure to be a horrific downward spiral. Thank you, Coach Holtz!

       When I remember to ask myself What's Important Now, the answers to the questions of where to begin or what to do next present themselves, in short order. It is truly that simple.

       I would like to point out that ultimately, I have found that for this acronym to work, I have to know what my priorities are. Knowing what my priorities are allows me to ask what's important now and actually know the answer. Knowing the answer makes it possible for me to face situations that seem daunting and to handle any anxiety that may arise from new or overwhelming situations. 

       I realize that some have tried to hijack this technique to sell the idea of achieving fame and fortune. That is not how I use W.I.N. I use it to live the life I want to live by achieving better mental and physical health. I don't do that by chasing fame and fortune. Often, the most important things in my life are simple, like spending time with my family, helping others, painting, dancing to my favorite music, exercising, getting a good night's sleep or meditating. Those are a few of the things that bring joy and meaning to my life. By remembering the acronym W.I.N., and what my priorities are, I am able to keep those things front and center in my life. I am forever grateful to Coach Holtz for this simple concept. 

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       As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a fantastic resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
Feel free to send your questions or comments to:

       There are very few things that relieve the symptoms of my mental illnesses as fast as exercise. One of the things that does is to make a gratitude list. I was skeptical of the process, so I didn't try it until I was in a very deep, dark depression. 

       At that time, I honestly didn't believe I had anything to be grateful for. I know that comparing yourself with others is a big no-no in the world of mental illness, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I decided to compare myself with someone living in a war torn area, at that time, where the people didn't know if they were going to eat or even survive the night. In an instant, I started writing down ideas, which I would have never thought of otherwise. 

       I spent well over an hour writing. When I finally laid my pen down, I was astonished. I felt better. I felt much better. I was still depressed, granted, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I put the list on my nightstand and was finally able to get out of bed. Then, I took a shower and was able to eat a little something. I was sold, and I haven't looked back since. 

       When I sense things in my life might be going downhill this is often my first line of defense, because I can't always drop everything and go exercise. I can, however, start writing down things that I am grateful for. If things have gotten bad and I am too lethargic or anxious to exercise, I immediately turn to the gratitude list strategy. So far, that simple act has always improved my mood just enough to allow me to go for a run/exercise. Then, I have my symptoms on the ropes. 

       This is a well-researched area of psychology. In a series of experiments that were detailed in a 2003 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, daily exercise practices and listing off the things that you are thankful for were linked with a brighter outlook on life, a greater sense of positivity and a significant reduction in depression symptoms. 

       Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done a great deal of the research on the topic. In one of many studies, they asked participants to simply write one sentence at the end of their day that stated something that they were grateful for. After ten weeks, the participants scored significantly higher on the optimism scale and reported feeling better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than they had reported before the test. 

       Writing down things that one is grateful for also improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Simply spending just 15 minutes jotting down a few things that one is grateful for before bed can significantly help him/her sleep better and longer. 

       A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience after the terrorist attacks on  9/11.  Recognizing things that one has to be thankful for, even during the worst times of life, fosters resilience. 

       I could list hundreds of studies, but you get the picture. When someone writes down things that he/she is grateful for, it is highly likely that their psychological wellbeing will improve. That has certainly proved to be true for me. 
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As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people. 
Feel free to send your questions or comments to:

       Many readers have asked what, besides exercise, is my favorite form of therapy. I have no idea how to answer that question. I think I have learned something from each form of therapy I have tried. So, besides exercise, I am not sure I can give a favorite. 

       I do know a form of therapy that I go back to over and over again like I do with exercise, and it is bibliotherapy. It is the practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect. That means using books to help alleviate the symptoms of mental illnesses someone may be facing at any given time. 

       Some like to trace its roots back to the oldest known library in the world, which was that of King Ramses II. Above the entrance to the chamber were written the words, "House of Healing for the Soul." That is a wonderfully romantic idea, and personally, I like it. However, there have since been many randomized controlled trials that have demonstrated that bibliotherapy has positive effects for disorders such as depression, addiction, self-harm, OCD, bulimia and insomnia. 

       I like things that have the greatest chance for positive change while having the lowest risk of negative side effects. I also like things that are inexpensive. If someone has a library card bibliotherapy is free, and if he/she doesn't like the book, then the worst side effect is losing an hour before deciding to return it. That is hard to beat. 

       There are some that respond best to fiction, where they can relate to a character and feel that they are not alone. Others seem to respond best to nonfiction. The research indicates that it doesn't matter which genre a person chooses as long as it is meaningful to him/her. 

       A quick online search of books or articles for what I am going through, or answers I would like to find, usually results in a multitude of possibilities. I write down my top ten from the list and get the ones I can. Then, I can pick one or two that really appeal to me once I get them home. The following books are easy places to start for those of us with mental illnesses and are some of my personal favorites as well. 

When I think I just can't go on anymore, and that life has handed me a raw deal, I grab this book and devour it. In its pages, a Viennese psychiatrist tells of his grim experiences in German concentration camps which led him to logotherapy, which is an existential method of psychiatry. His descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and lessons for survival always inspire me. For three years this psychiatrist labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife all perished. He makes the argument that we cannot avoid suffering, but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed vigor. His theory, known as logotherapy, holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the discovery and pursuit of what is meaningful to the individual.

There are many times that I feel that I face great disadvantages in my life because of my mental illnesses. In this book, Gladwell challenges how people think about disadvantages and obstacles, by offering a new interpretation of what it means to cope with a disability, or the loss of a parent, or suffer from any number of other apparent setbacks. He demonstrates how much of what is beautiful and important in the world arises from what looks like suffering and adversity.

 When I start wishing things were different I bathe my mind with the words found in this book. "If I only had more money I'd be happy." "If my family were different I would find peace." "If I didn't have _______ in my life I know I would find my bliss." In other words, when I start believing that someone or something is going to make me happy, I know it is time to read this one again.

When I realize that I am overcome with anxiety and am beginning to spiral out of control, I rush to my bookshelf and grab Carnegie's magnum opus. The simplicity of these techniques made me scoff the first time I read them. Then, I tried them. This book has saved me more times than I can count.

Finally, as many may suspect since I am an advocate of exercise, is a book full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration. Born to Run will engage your mind and inspire your body when you realize that one of the secrets to happiness is right at your feet.
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       As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people. 
Feel free to send your questions or comments to:

       Someone, years ago, told me about how good she felt after volunteering at a homeless shelter downtown. Something about what she said rang true for me. I was reminded of what my grandfather used to tell me, “If you want good self-esteem, you have to do esteemable things.” I was in a low point and sinking into the bitter morass of self-pity, which often happens when I get depressed. I decided to force myself to volunteer at the shelter. I called and scheduled to come in the next afternoon. When I left that facility, I was never the same again. The act of volunteering had overwhelmed many of my symptoms by the end of the first day. I was hooked. I have since made it my mission to volunteer as much as possible. 

       As regular readers have rightly pointed out, while joking around with me on social media, I am a science nerd. So, as usual, I wanted to know more than just my first hand experience. I wanted to know if this was a universal phenomenon that could be replicated by others. I was fascinated by what I found. Here is a small taste of the data confirming that volunteering can be beneficial on many levels, for many people.

       Vanderbilt University researchers published a study in which they stated, “We examined the relationships between volunteer work in the community and six aspects of personal well-being: happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over life, physical health, and depression…Results show that volunteer work indeed enhances all six aspects of well-being and, conversely, people who have greater well-being invest more hours in volunteer service.” The researchers didn't say the results were mixed. They said, "...vounteer work indeed enhances all six aspects of well-being..." ALL SIX!

       The American Psychological Association published a study that reports, Four studies tested the impact of autonomous and controlled motivation for helping others on well-being and explored effects on other outcomes of helping for both helpers and recipients….Findings support the idea that autonomous motivation for helping yields benefits for both helper and recipient through greater need satisfaction." I love this part the most, "...yields benefits for both helper and recipient." A true win-win situation. How wonderful, and rare, those are.

       Social Science and Medicine published a study that points to the fact that it doesn’t matter what socioeconomic group one may be from, volunteering helps. “Drawing on data from the USA, our estimates suggest that people who volunteer report better health and greater happiness than people who do not, a relationship that is not driven by socio-economic differences between volunteers and non-volunteers.” There are many studies that delve into the fact that socioeconomic status, age, education level and marital status do not factor into whether volunteering is beneficial. Volunteering can be beneficial for all.

      Do realize, there are many ways to volunteer. If social anxiety is overwhelming someone there are dog and cat shelters, clean up crews, public park assistants, etc., that require almost no social interaction with others. They are almost always looking for help, because they are the organizations that are often overlooked.

       One thing to be aware of is that once someone gets started, which is, as always, the hardest part--it can be addicting. I had to learn to take time out to make sure me and my family were taken care of first. If I don’t help my family and myself first, then I certainly won’t be able to help any one else. Learning to distinguish between real needs and excuses, and setting priorities, became simple after a short time. The need to help myself drives the need to help others, which drives the need to help myself. It is a beautiful cycle that self-regulated itself in my life rather quickly. If I begin to wonder if I'm going overboard I remember this quote by the Dalai Lama, "If you don't love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself, then you are not cable of developing compassion for others." I simply ask myself one question. Have I forgotten to take care of mine and my family's needs? If not, then I go about trying to help others. It's that simple.

       I hope that this gives someone the incentive he/she was looking for to get out of the house and go volunteer somewhere. The odds are high that it will help everyone/everything involved.
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As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people. 
Feel free to send your questions or comments to: