There are a number of risk factors associated with developing major depressive disorder, including temperament, environmental factors (adverse childhood experiences, stressful life events, etc.), genetics, and other mental health and medical disorders.1 Most of these triggers of depression are out of the realm of control for the depressed patient. There are, however, some habits within the realm of control that can worsen symptoms of depression.
Depression is a serious medical condition that can be treated with counseling, medication, or a combination of the two, but people struggling with depression can also make lifestyle changes to help alleviate symptoms. It helps to look at choices and habits that can contribute to depressive symptoms to understand how to make healthy choices during the treatment process.
The essential feature of a major depressive episode is a period of at least two weeks in which there is either a depressed mood or a lack of pleasure in nearly all activities. 2 This can make it difficult to find the energy to do much of anything.
Depression can negatively impact employment, school, relationships, and other important areas of functioning. Depression can make it difficult to even get out of bed in the morning.
While depression might make you feel like staying in bed all day is the only doable option, studies show that moderate exercise (walking 20-40 minutes, 3 times per week) is effective in decreasing depression and improves long term outcomes for depressed people. 3
Moderate exercise boosts the “feel good” neurochemicals dopamine and serotonin. Look to your support network to find a walking buddy to schedule 3-4 walks per week to help counter inactivity.
Poor sleep habits
Sleep disturbance is actually one of the symptoms of depression, and it can set a negative sleep cycle in motion. Sleep disturbance can take the form of either difficulty falling and staying asleep, or sleeping too much. 4
To complicate matters, chronic sleep deprivation is also a trigger of depression. Sleep disturbance is both a symptom and a trigger of depression. One study of adolescents found that reduced quantity of sleep increases the risk of depression, which in turn increases the risk of reduced sleep. 5 It can feel like a never-ending cycle.
Set up good sleep habits to help stop the negative sleep cycle associated with sleep deprivation and depression. Keep sleep and wake times consistent, shut off all electronics a few hours prior to bedtime, and remove all screens from the bedroom.
When life is overwhelming, it’s natural to turn inward. It’s difficult to reach out for social support when getting out the door in the morning feels like an impossible chore. Meaningful social support is, however, exactly what you need during this time.
Research shows that social support moderates genetic and environmental vulnerabilities for mental illness by providing coping strategies and building up resilience to stress. 6
Social support is more than just a quick phone call to check in. Time spent with supportive friends or family members can help you work through your thoughts and feelings in a safe environment.
Believe it or not, the food you eat can negatively impact your emotional health. A study in The American Journal of Psychiatry found a link between diets high in processed foods, refined grains, sugary products, and beer and increased rates of depression and anxiety among women. 7
Many people reach for “comfort” foods when struggling with difficult emotions, and one of the symptoms of depression includes changes in eating habits resulting in significant weight loss or weight gain. It helps to track eating habits by journaling appetites, food choices, and emotional responses to get a baseline of eating habits.
People with depression are prone to rumination, or dwelling on negative thoughts. Negative thought patterns include dwelling on rejection, loss, failure, and other sources of stress. Dwelling on difficult problems compulsively exacerbates symptoms of depression. The best bet for putting an end to rumination is to seek professional help.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help depressed people identify negative thought patterns and learn to replace them with positive thoughts and adaptive coping strategies.
Changes in habits alone won’t “cure” depression, but they can assist in the treatment process.