Lifestyle Changes to Improve Your Mood
Also Helpful for Chronic Pain
Most people are aware of the following tenets of a healthy lifestyle, but few people with mood disorders or chronic pain follow all of them. In part, the reasons they don’t are related to their illness, such as problems sleeping being widespread with mood and chronic pain problems, and difficulty exercising because of pain and fatigue. All these issues need to be high on the priority list in achieving a healthy mood, as well as optimum health, even if the help of a physician, therapist or other health care provider is necessary to achieve them.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
People have different ideas and different needs when it comes to defining healthy diet. If you’re suffering with depression, anxiety or chronic pain, it can be difficult to maintain good eating habits, but healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. People who make it a priority to eat well improve faster than those who don’t, and you will never feel your best without healthy fuel. If you want a review of what constitutes a good diet go to www.mypyramid.gov. There is an excellent discussion of research on food as it effects mood in the book The Depression Cure: The Six Step Program to beat Depression without Drugs, by Stephen Ilardi, Ph.D. He cites research showing that in addition to a balanced diet, fish oil, vitamin C and vitamin D have been shown to be helpful in improving mood. They are all healthy anyway, so add them to your diet and check Dr. Ilardi’s book for specific doses and details. Dr. Ilardi’s book is an excellent how to manual for instituting the lifestyle changes I am recommending here, with some minor variations not worth quibbling over.
If you need to lose weight, I recommend Weight Watchers. You can follow their program online, attend meetings, or do both. I am biased in Weight Watcher’s favor because I lost 35 pounds using the program eight years ago, and I have successfully kept it off. The program was recommended to me by registered dietitians as the only major weight loss program which was nutritionally balanced. As a psychologist, I notice that the program consistently follows methods based on solid psychological research for successful behavior change, such as the use of support groups and recording behavior (i.e., recording what you eat and your exercise). Weight Watchers success is also due to its flexibility. You can follow the program cooking your own food, eating out, or buying prepared frozen food. Weight Watchers used to be rather complicated and restrictive, but it has been greatly simplified and made much less restrictive.
If you are diabetic or have high blood pressure or other health issues which limit your diet, it is essential that you educate yourself about what constitutes a good diet for your condition. Health insurance will pay for a consultation with a registered dietitian or a class at a hospital with a doctor’s referral. There is a lot of good information about nutrition for diabetics at www.diabetes.org. You can follow Weight Watchers with diabetes, but you need to be informed about your special needs and keep them in mind.
- Get some regular exercise.
If you are depressed or have chronic pain, you probably feel tired all the time, and don’t feel energetic or motivated enough to exercise. There is nothing that will improve how you feel more than exercising, and you will never feel your best unless you get some regular exercise. It should be a high priority, even if you have to start very slowly and work up to a more vigorous workout. Do what you enjoy and what is convenient for you.
If you have never exercised or if you need motivation, find a class at a gym. If you are fortunate enough to have YMCA near you, they are consistently good facilities with well-trained instructors for a reasonable price, including scholarships. If you don’t know what to do, but hate the idea of a class, get a personal trainer through the Y or a gym. If you have health problems or pain which limits your ability to exercise, ask your doctor to refer you to a physical therapist who will instruct you in working around your limitations. Another way to motivate yourself is to have an exercise buddy. You can find someone at a similar level to your own through a gym or on Craig’s List, or at Weight Watchers. You will be less likely to skip exercise if you have a date with someone; a class can serve the same function, just because it’s on your calendar.
- Expand your social life.
Human beings are social creatures. If you are isolated, you will not feel as good as you will if you have contact with people. If you have trouble forming or maintaining relationships, it may help to structure your social life by joining a church, temple or other religious organization and attending social functions on their calendar. You can do volunteer work for a cause that is personally meaningful. You can join a support group, service organization, or 12-Step program. Make time to see your friends and the family members you enjoy!
- Get regular health care, including follow-up on chronic problems.
In addition to seeing your dentist and primary care physician at the intervals they recommend, be a compliant patient with regard to your chronic health problems. You can’t expect to feel well if you don’t follow your doctor’s advice. If you doubt him or her, get a second opinion, but don’t ignore health problems; they don’t usually go away. Mood disorders like depression interact with physical problems. If you have untreated sleep apnea for instance (main symptom: snoring) you will feel tired all the time, which will make depression worse. You won’t ever feel your best if you don’t take care of your health.
- Don’t smoke or abuse drugs.
This advice goes without saying. If I needed to quit smoking, I would get all the help I could because I know it’s really hard. I quit 36 years ago. Like most people, I quit several times before I quit for good. I kept thinking I could have just one. You can’t have one. You will slip back into using. If I were quitting now, I would join a support group, get patches or gum, keep a journal, and report to a doctor or therapist once a week on my progress.
Similarly, if I had a drug problem, depending on its nature, I would join a 12-Step program or sign myself into an inpatient program. Individual therapy is great for the follow-up, but inpatient, Alcoholics Anonymous and narcotics Anonymous are the place to start with active drug and alcohol problems.
Yes, most of this advice is common sense, but not always easy to put into practice. If you find you can’t do it on your own, get help, either from a therapist or a professional with expertise in the problem area. If you have chronic insomnia, you may need a sleep study, for example.
- Spend some time outdoors as often as possible.
Our ancestors as recently as 100 years ago spent most of their time outdoors while we spend most of our time indoors. It is no wonder that natural light turns out to have some beneficial effects, including normalizing our body clock and setting mood. Especially if you find yourself to be more depressed in winter, but even if you don’t, consider investing in a light for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder. They cost about $100 and have been shown by research to offset the effect of too little light on the brain. See Dr. Ilardi’s book for more details on the research and where to find lights.