For many who have been convinced there’s nothing in their life that caused their depression—and nothing in their life they need to change to help solve it—discovering the crucial place of lifestyle adjustments in emotional healing can come as a genuine surprise.
We have explored the impact of hope as a basic foundation for the deeper healing and recovery of people facing depression. Hope is not reality, of course, and the physical realization of hope still needs to follow.
In this next section, we explore the centrality of actual learning and growing that shows up with surprising prominence in people’s narratives of depression healing.
Note: Although some kind of concrete learning and growth (often involving physical health) is perhaps relevant to most of the stories sampled here, we draw below on themes from 54 of the 77 accounts where participants spoke especially directly about the role these changes played (1, 2, 4, 6, 11, 12, 13, 15, 21, 25, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32, 36, 37, 38, 39, 42, 43, 44, 46, 47, 53, 59, 61, 65, 66, 67, 68, 71, 72, 73, 75, 77, 78, 81, 82, 87, 88, 89, 91, 93, 96, 98, 100, 102, 104, 105, 107, 108, 109, 110).
Just as hope precedes any change in real-life—so also does some kind of learning and education.
The Power of Knowledge
Learning something inspiring. I explored in the previous segment how often people speak of a turning point where something they read increased their hope. But this was more than a fleeting emotional response. People also described picking up a book, watching a video, hearing a story, or meeting someone that left an indelible mark on them and influenced a change in their healing trajectory. Caleb recounted how watching “a video on Youtube [of] an interview of a girl and her father whose family had clinical depression” made him think about healing in a new way. He was also impacted by The Depression Cure, “Dr. Ilardi’s book really helped me—these are the stepping stones.” (108)
In addition to specific lessons, others spoke of the impact of learning more generally:
- One person was described by a loved one as “the kind of guy who has a deep desire to learn and grow, even in the midst of depression he would get out of bed, read books, learn.” (108)
- Mike described how he “journeyed into an obscure bookstore and found books that taught him about how to look inwards for more answers.” (32)
- Accompanying a summary of the gradual improvement in emotional well-being, Mark said, “Along the way, there have been many meaningful self-discoveries—about my biological, psychological, relational, spiritual, and ecological being and well-being.” (6)
- Thomas likewise reflected on how prior to his healing taking place, “I really discovered the joy of learning when I moved away from home.” (11)
Deeper learning with professional help. The critical learning described above was self-guided. Other times, learning was tied to an insight from supportive professionals. Ashley described profound levels of self-examination that happened during intensive treatment: “I looked at everything else in my life under a microscope” she said, thanks to “an incredible amount of written work—including hundreds of pages of self-evaluation, some of which we shared in group therapy.” (75)
Dr. Hoffman ran a number of alternative diagnostic tests on me: glucose tolerance (which tests fluctuation of blood sugar levels in response to sugar intake), food and chemical sensitivities, vitamin and fatty-acid levels, and heavy metals toxicity. The most relevant test appeared to be the glucose tolerance test. If I recall correctly, I appeared to be highly sensitive to sugar: After eating sugar, my blood sugar spiked higher, and then crashed lower, than most people’s. (30)
At its best, this is the kind of broad-based, whole person learning that the mental health systems around us can prompt. As Moni wrote about her emotional struggles overseas:
As the health system is quite good in Germany, I was able to experiment with a variety of different therapies such as CBT, art and occupational therapy, as well as several physical therapies. I found something inspiring in each therapy: the creative therapies helped me express my true nature better, and the educational group therapies helped improve my awareness about my issues. It was also the first time in my life that I was able to focus only on my inner self, not having to think of my family responsibilities. It gave me a break, eventually. (46)
Watching for clues, listening to symptoms. A watchful eye on the details of experience is noted as a valuable part of learning for some. As Johann put it: “We need to stop trying to muffle or silence or pathologize that pain. Instead, we need to listen to it, and honor it. It is only when we listen to our pain that we can follow it back to its source—and only there, when we can see its true causes, can we begin to overcome it.”
No…your distress is not a malfunction. It is a signal—a necessary signal…this pain isn’t your enemy, however much it hurts….It’s your ally…let it guide you—away from the things that are hurting and draining you, and toward the things that will meet your true needs. So instead of seeing your depression and anxiety as a form of madness…you need to see the sanity in this sadness. You need to see that it makes sense. Of course, it is excruciating…But that doesn’t mean the pain is insane or irrational…Depression and anxiety might, in one sense, be the sanest reaction you have. It’s a signal saying—you shouldn’t have to live this way, and if you aren’t helped to find a better path, you will be missing out on so much that is best about being human. (21)
Lori described how “listening to pain signals instead of trying to muffle them” was a “big” contributor on her personal journey of healing. (37)
What this means is that the emotional pain can move us in the right direction. As Tina Knowles Lawson put it, “we aren’t meant to dwell in the dark. But darkness can be an indicator, helping us ask the tough questions and take one faithful step at a time towards being all God created us to be.”
Looking bigger, looking backward. The value of “recognizing the scope of true causes” (98) is another theme of healing. This includes big and little things, as William said, “the determining factors of depression are oftentimes the little things that we are not even aware of.” (100)
This can prompt new views of self—as Ashley put it, “you need to take a look at yourself in the big picture.” (75)
In addition to looking bigger, this can involve looking backwards. As Moni said, “The therapies that I had tried so far had helped me function better again, but none of them could erase the underlying cause of my ‘disorder,’ which was mainly rooted in childhood trauma.” (46) Jada spoke of confronting “a cycle of generational anxiety.” (78)
Notably, all the other learning they had experienced was helpful—but for some, this didn’t get to the bottom of their pain until they went into difficult past experiences. This is true of many other accounts, as Joanne said of a difficult moment:
It forced me to look back at 17 years of my life and remember things. I went through the birth of three children, two serious bereavements and a marriage break-up. It was very much linked to my mother dying. But there were lots of happy memories as well. This big long passage from my life is now rounded off. (72)
Seeing and better recognizing painful things in the past is not enough. There are other processes to work through and navigate past trauma we explore up ahead.
Looking at yourself in the mirror. Books and professionals can be invaluable in taking a careful look at lifestyle contributors. But laying these external resources aside, there’s a lot to be said about the power of our own contemplative moments in the present moment. As Crystal admitted:
I came to realize that I had additional hurts, habits, and hang-ups to deal with in my heart. Within me there was selfishness, control, idolization of justice, anger, a desire to be loved and approved of, and much more I had been blind to. I had to deal with many past sinful decisions that led me outside of God’s best, as well as forgive the people who had acted hurtfully toward me. (82)
This woman went on to compare the experience of change to “cleaning out my house.” As she put it, “Imagine your home if dirt, filth and junk had been piling up for years. First it became a little bit embarrassing, so you hid your messes when people came over.” But then, “rather than hiding things in the closet when you invited guests over, you began to stop inviting people over altogether.” (82)
There is more we say later about people facing their own flaws and mistakes. Suffice it to say here, the way people seek to overcome challenges and become better is distinct from the kind of self-shaming and hyper-self-criticism that can be a temptation for many depressed people.
Making Changes in Life
Learning more and looking more closely at your life is helpful, but especially if it prompts something else. In addition to the value of different kinds of learning and insights, people spoke of the value of “learning skills to navigate life” (43), coming to “learn new skills to fight back against depression” (72)—and even more than that, becoming “the best version of yourself.” (99)
This kind of growth, changing and progressing has been established in many research studies (about “behavioral activation” for instance) to make an incremental difference for depression—and even to directly influence the state of the mind itself.
Behavioral change preceding the mental kind. As another individual said, “We don’t need more ideas—we need to make things happen” (perhaps paraphrasing author Gita Luz). Ben said:
The only way out of the hole is movement. The only way to get away from depression is movement. This takes plan and strategy. This takes attention. Otherwise, we find ourselves stuck in the hole again, digging ourselves in deeper, hoping to God or whomever else is listening that maybe we can at least dig ourselves to the other side. (91)
This is different from “fake it till you make it”—reflecting a proactive, intentional movement with an eye to compounding healing effects over time. It also contrasts strongly with the usual way of thinking—which presumes we feel the way we feel until something outside of ourselves changes. Marsha said, “You can’t think yourself into new ways of acting; you can only act yourself into new ways of thinking”—citing a behaviorist who seeks to “change what a person does…rather than change a disturbed person’s biology or change his thoughts.”
This recovered individual, Marsha Linehan—now a respected therapist—calls this process “opposite action,” elaborating how adjustments to behavior can impact our feelings too: “change your behavior and you will change your emotion.” As a specific illustration of this, she summarized this technique she now uses with clients:
Half smiling is a way of accepting reality with your body. Here is how you do it. First, relax your face, from the top of your head down to your chin and jaw. Let go of each facial muscle. If you find it hard, try tensing your face and then letting up. Second, let both corners of your mouth go slightly up, just so you can feel them moving. A half-smile is slightly upturned lips with a relaxed face. Third, try to adopt a serene facial expression. The whole exercise is one of your face communicating with your brain. It works. (43)
The value of “keeping moving.” Many of the excerpts that follow reflect how emotional patterns can begin to yield to behavioral adjustments. However, there are many times in which healthy steps must be taken in the face of emotional turbulence. As one man emphasized:
My psychological self-care included resisting surrender to the symptoms, even if it wasn’t yet a complete cure of this brain illness. Get out of bed, get dressed, get out the door. Walk, run. Engage with life, do what I can. Each day’s efforts flow powerfully into the next. Sustaining momentum, no matter how small, is critical. Depression feeds on coming to a standstill, and things only get harder from there. I have learned to accept that I’m not entirely in control of this brain sickness, but I can choose to curtail its influence and the symptoms that flow from it.
Mark added, “For me, forcing myself to get out of bed and engage with life is my starting point. That is mostly important because it puts me where I can get outside myself and available to others.” (6)
This kind of movement can really take courage and determination. Karen described “the profound and complicated experience of putting one foot in front of the other.” (53) As Lori put it:
When I was at my most depressed, doing one simple chore like laundry, vacuuming, or dishes became an anchor I could come back to. In times when my apartment was in absolute shambles, I could barely get up for work, and I hadn’t washed my hair in days, I could say, “All right, I’m not going to worry about anything else today except for doing the dishes, and if I do that, I can call today a success. and curl up in a ball and do nothing for the rest of the day.” Turns out, doing the dishes has some remarkable momentum to it. Once the sink was empty and the cupboards were full, it almost always turned into, “Well, maybe I have energy for a shower.” And once I showered, sometimes I could pick up my clutter. And so on. It wasn’t some drastic moment in my healing journey, but it was one small thing I leaned on to spark tiny upward spirals to get more on top of my day to day life. (37)
Laughter as an illustration of behavioral sparking emotion. Many assume that “if your mind is not well, then you can’t laugh anymore.” But Jonathan spoke about how “humor brings respite—little gaps in time that give you a break.” He named laughter the “cousin of joy” and observed that, in the face of depression, “I personally need to seek amusement and laughter” because in her experience, “energies that are the direct opposite to one another will cancel each other out.” (96)
He continued: “Having the ability to laugh and appreciate the humor in everyday life is doubtless such an underestimated therapy”—going on to challenge anyone to feel emotionally poor “whilst they are genuinely laughing or smiling…and not the nervous laugh or one that is forced, but something that makes you feel amusement to the point of making that strange noise we do when we laugh.” (96)
Laughter, of course, can arise from healing—just as we see it can help contribute to the same. As Juanita reflected on a sign of healing finally happening, “I hadn’t laughed in months, nor had I been listening to the show since I was bed bound. But that morning Funky Larry said something hilarious that made me smile.” (47)
Here, we’re talking about engaging certain behaviors—smiling, laughter, posture, physical activity—that move us in the direction we want to go. Once again, this is different than just “pretending” to be happy, which is another skill that many people with depression unfortunately lean upon. One woman described her husband, “He was really good at not showing his depression. He smiled a bunch. Even with our daughter who was born in 2011, he would be a joyful dad. Just tons of fun. But I could see through it. He was hurting deeply.” (108) Stephanie said, “I could mask it for the most part, but it became harder and harder to hide it….I am a funny person, I have a quick wit and was born without a filter, so people find it hard to believe that I struggle at all.” (109)
That kind of pretending gets so old. As this person continued, “I was getting more and more to the point where I realized I could no longer spend my time trying to please other people. That and pretending to be happy were two behaviors I could no longer engage in.”
That fakeness is not what we’re talking about here. To slap a smile on your face just to throw off people around you is different than intentionally acting in a way that demonstrates your conviction of future hopes or the current joy life offers. Compared to the former, the latter is about engineering behavioral adjustments that move people in a direction of deeper healing—even sometimes behaviors that don’t initially feel genuine.
Resistance and sensitivity to change. Any mention of personal change, even small ones, can trigger concerns from people facing mental health problems. The same woman, Marsha, who championed finding laughter also admitted seeing others “extremely sensitive to anything that appeared to invalidate their pain” and “anything that suggested that they themselves needed to change.” (43)
That could arise, in part, due to wrestles many have with past trauma or current self-worth. Mark spoke about how valuable it was that he “learned to carefully and critically examine and distinguish between my need for personal change and the self-condemning, self-harming self-talk depression brings.” (6)
Even while describing a number of changes made in her life, Juanita acknowledged the ever-present desire to just “be normal” and “return to our old self”—thus “getting on with life.” She said, “the question I asked myself is, which life? The same life that got you here in the first place, Juanita? Or are you willing to take the long, slow road toward building a life that you can live with?”
In retrospect, she reflected, “I was eager to get back to things as they had been. …unconsciously that meant a return to my old way of doing.” Juanita added, “My ego was all too eager to get me back into the ruts created in my mind over a lifetime, the same ruts that had landed me here. “
Even though she knew deeply that changes were needed, she admitted “my ego wanted life as it had been.” As she did so, “I began to move into my typical ways of going about my life—only to be hammered by relapses.” (47)
This seems an incredibly important point—the way in which we can so often resist accepting that things might have to look different for us to move forward emotionally.
Acceptance as a counterbalance to striving. The same recovered therapist who promotes opposite action also underscored the central importance of a basic acceptance of reality in order to find positive emotional shifts. As Marsha put it, an “acceptance of life as it is, not as it is supposed to be.”
That might feel antithetical to the notion of moving forward to change things—or they could perhaps be parallel truths, that each represent an important reality. Marsha contrasted that with “willfulness,” where “the focus is on controlling reality, it is ‘my way or the highway.’” By contrast, “willingness is about opening yourself to what is. It is about becoming one with the universe, participating in it, doing what is needed in the moment.” (43)
In Robert’s account, he “eventually” recovered the ability to “accept reality.” (89) Marsha went on to highlight the necessary “balance between acceptance of oneself and one’s situation and embracing change towards a better life”—elaborating, “we should strive for important goals, but we must radically accept that we might not obtain them. It is letting go of having to have. And accepting what is.” (43)
Approaching healing as a quest. This is a whole lot of uncertainty and change to navigate. Yet Victoria encouraged others to “embrace the hard work of healing.” (31) Jennifer said, “Get crystal clear on where you are now and what steps you need to take to get your life back until you become happy and fulfilled.” (28) Alexi said, “don’t expect your depression to go away after one session with a therapist. Show up every day and commit to your healing just like an athlete would commit to their training.” (81)
This certainly takes perseverance. One person’s account of healing was summarized as coming “to understand how a life is built.” Another individual recollected:
At the time of all this excess and darkness…I was working on was a book called The Man Who Swam the Amazon [about] Martin Strel—a Slovenian marathon swimmer—[who] became the first man to swim the entire Amazon river, from headwaters to mouth at Belém, 3,274 miles. He completed this in 66 days, with a team of about 20 following him in a support boat.” Afterwards, the swimmer told a reporter, “I’m either going to be the first man to swim the Amazon, or the first man to die trying.”
This statement pierced through my haze of depression and struck me. Here was a man who wanted something so badly he was willing to die for it. He had a goal, and he would willingly give his life to achieve it. The idea of a challenge—-a quest—-started percolating through my mind. Something to knock me out of my rut, rouse my from my funk. I’m not going to swim the Amazon, of course. But what could I do? What challenge could I undertake that would require focus, dedication, and sacrifice? What challenge would whip me into shape? (emphasis my own, 30)
A “quest” for healing was described by another as a “journey of healing” that led to an “ultimate victory over an unimaginable past through personal acceptance, inner peace, and self-discovery.” This kind of healing saga reads almost like a dramatic rescue on Mt. Everest—characterized in Newton’s memoir as “a testament of one man’s survival against unimaginable odds.” (87) Mendek said, “I welcome each day as a glorious adventure, and I know simply being alive is magical.” (44)
More than simply overcoming depression, this is about “building a life worth living” and “creating a life you love.” (42)
Nyla said, “Healing is a process less about a destination than it is about maintaining hope, finding acceptance, and the will to continue the journey (or to reach out for help when that will may feel too exhausted).” (61) Marsha described leveraging frustration for more forward movement—“The idea of proving everyone wrong kept me going…this kind of anger can be helpful.” (43)
Alignment with conscience. In some cases, these changes involved an awareness of having departed from higher principle or the dictates of conscious—prompting a process of soul-searching and repentance. As Josh said, “After years of struggling, I decided to come back to the Lord. I knew he was waiting for me, had something for me. I went through a lot of confession and repentance—which was something I hadn’t taken seriously.” (105)
Another individual described how she had “worked through Step 4, Inventory,” of Emotions Anonymous and had been “humbled to see my contribution into things I listed.” She continued, “While some events were out of my control, such as my dad choosing to end his life, I had to address the sinful responses, which had led me further into isolation and misery.” (94)
Note: Although the language of “sin” and “sinful responses” does not resonate with everyone whose stories we’ve reviewed, the idea (and practice) of aligning oneself with conscience, deeper wisdom, or personal intuition does.
Even after making a change, there is sometimes a residue of habit that remains. As Crystal summarized:
Even after you start trading in your harmful decisions and habits for good ones, you will have a season of cleaning up the wreckage from past ones. It may feel like you’re not making progress, but in due time you will reap the good fruit of making changes like these in your life. Like ripples in water from a rock being thrown into it, even when you stop throwing rocks you must wait for the waters to calm.
Eventually, Crystal described a recovery of his “ability to choose” and to “set limits” as part of her healing process. (82)
No matter the length of struggle, the opportunity to start again is something people expressed appreciation for. Ashley described coming across a proverb, “It is better to begin in the evening than not at all” which prompted her to say “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past—what matters are the choices you make right now. God gives you the chance to start over with every breath.” This woman’s story attested to that fact, with a surprisingly comprehensive change experience—“everything about me has changed except my name.” (75)
One step at a time. In attempting to describe their gradual experience of healing, Kristian said:
Imagine being Administrator of NASA the day after John F. Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. It must have seemed overwhelming. You cannot complete such complex projects in a single go; you need to divide them into many small and achievable tasks. Then, just take on the individual tasks one at a time.
Drawing on “eleven years of deep depression as a teenager and student,” this person said, “you can follow the same strategy to overcome depression.” He went on to detail deeper healing from depression that came by practicing techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology that led him to “become a thoroughly happy person.” (93)
In another example of step-by-step progress, after finding a group called Emotions Anonymous, one woman recollected how she “began working the steps after attending meetings for about six months….I worked the steps continuously.” (2)
Vicki suggested that we might ask about any particular health intervention, “Is this helping me understand what’s going on with me? And if not, maybe I need to drop that and try something else.” Ultimately, she emphasized the importance of “really understanding that this process of wellness is a lifetime pursuit.” (12)
“Sometimes” she admitted, “we go six steps backward, then we go four forward, and we have a chance to do things over, we have a chance to learn and then to keep moving, and the path is the goal.” Vicki added:
Because sometimes we can try as hard as we possibly can, and despite our efforts, things don’t seem to go our way. But in the background, as we do this work, progress is being made—even though it might not be obvious. And as we tune in a little more, the subtle progressions become more obvious.
Above all, she said, “We don’t bite off the whole thing at once, we take it one step at a time, one moment at a time, one breath at a time.” (12)
This involves seizing on what someone can control. “For moments when I would feel completely overwhelmed,” one woman’s mentor gave this advice, “Think about what you can do, Sarah. What can you do? Can you go for a walk? Can you put on some music? Do what you can do.” (36)
Danny spoke of taking advantage of time between painful emotional episodes to grow, “so that your relapses gradually become fewer and farther between, and in the end, eventually peter out for good.” (98)
This is about progressing one step at a time, reflecting what Julie called “a carefully measured appreciation of life, in which every step forward is a victory worth celebrating.” (66)
Feeling better little by little. Accompanying these steady, gradual shifts in behavior is, for many, a gradually dawning improvement in their emotional health. Thomas described his life shifting incrementally and more naturally:
Life conditions naturally changed for me, as I got out of high school, moved to college, moved away from home…life just naturally presented new conditions to me that didn’t seem to fit anywhere with my concept of what it means to be a depressed person, or an anxious person. I was starting to feel a lot of happiness come into my life, I was starting to feel a lot of freedom, and a lot of focus. It wasn’t this kind of awakening to ‘I’m not depressed any more,’ and ‘my attention is fine,’ and ‘I’m not as anxious as I used to be’—it was more day by day, just incrementally changing, moving in the direction of my life that was calling to me, and waking up to more of who I was. (11)
This naturally involves patience. Crystal said, “You might have read through this in a few minutes or days, but this process took years”—referring to consistent movement and alignment in the same direction. She added, “Have you ever planted something and watched it grow to maturity in the same day? Probably not. It takes time to see the fruit of what has been planted long ago.” (82)
That being said, there is also natural urgency, with Nicole describing how she “desperately wanted to be free of this mental illness” and admitting that “my nature was to steam-roll ahead and…I looked everywhere to look to receive healing.” Yet this woman sensed that God was “telling me to be patient” and that healing “needs to be done slowly, not to rush it.” (102)
Mark reflected, “For me, the measure of healing I have experienced is no less miraculous for being incremental and developmental—iterative, ongoing, evolving—no less a witness of grace for it requiring all I can do, patiently and persistently.” (6)
One woman noted, “We’re a culture that loves the quick fixes—we want the quick diet, we want the couple of Advils, no more headache—and if we don’t get it, we get really impatient. And we give up—sort of all or nothing.” Reflecting on her experience, she said, “It’s important for us to sort of step back and ask…am I willing to work on this piece by piece and ask myself really critical questions along the way—is this helping me work toward a life of balance?”
It’s remarkable how seemingly effortless and dynamic his and others’ healing process appears to be—that is, how it didn’t happen linearly and based only on his constant exertion. As Marsha said, “I experienced a significant shift… a metamorphosis just happened unprompted by me.” (43) Sarah spoke of a similarly gradual progression of movement in her life, including:
Coming to grips with the revelation about my mother leaving me unattended as an infant; to my slow but steady acceptance of the loss of my family; to my further involvement in the Catholic Church, my continued journaling—it was all a process of discovery and, in a sense, renewal. I was living the questions and, little by little, I was growing in faith and strength. I spent more time in prayer and meditation and spiritual reading. I began to feel more confident, more alive. (36)
This same gradual healing shows up over and over in stories of lifestyle-oriented change. As another individual who experienced both depression and anxiety recounted:
After about three weeks of diet changes, weekly appointments, and taking the supplements, I felt as if a dark fog had been lifted from around me. It was as if I could see and feel sunshine again. I could sleep again. I was happy. The panic attacks were gone within another two weeks. I went to a party without any social anxiety for the first time in my life. It was amazing. (104)
After recounting their own series of small adjustments, another person summarized:
I started to feel even better. I eventually made it through the rest of the book and started to record my depression symptoms according to the very helpful survey in the book. The first week I was in the 10-15 range (already a huge drop from where I estimated I was when first starting). The next week I was under 10. And this last week for the first time I can remember since I was in high school, I had ZERO symptoms of depression—this in spite of an extremely stressful week at work. (65)
Similar improvements prompted another individual to ask, “What if we started to think about antidepressants as something very different? What if changing the way we live—in specific, targeted, evidence-based ways—could be seen as an antidepressant, too?” (43)
In what follows, we review small adjustments made in some of the most essential categories of physical health—which, it turns out, are also essential areas for emotional healing too.
The Big Three
When looking at specific changes people report in their healing journey, the best place to start is what my colleagues and I sometimes call “The Big Three”: nutrition, physical activity, and sleep.
“Eating healthy,” “eating well,” better nutrition or “proper diet” (27, 99) is widely embraced as crucial for physical health without controversy. Some people still scratch their heads at why it matters for emotional health, but it nonetheless shows up prominently across many accounts of depression healing. The many various nutritional adjustments that people found helpful could be divided into two broad categories: things added to a daily intake—and things taken away.
Nutritional experiments—Adding things. Some of the individuals in this review spoke of adding new foods in their diet—sometimes at the recommendation of doctors, who sometimes prescribed a certain “nutritional regimen.” (77) For instance, David reported how they had “increased the amount of green vegetables I was eating by having a vegetable soup for dinner most nights, which included cabbage, onion, garlic, celery and spinach. I would have this with gluten-free bread and a protein—either fish or eggs.” (59)
Many more, however, spoke of taking additional supplements vitamins and nutritional/dietary supplements designed for mental health. Sometimes these were advised by a psychiatrist, naturopath or other practitioner:
- William reported, “On the recommendation of my psychiatrist, I take a set of B vitamins…required for optimal neurological functioning of the brain by promoting the normal functioning of hormones and neurotransmitters in memory consolidation and other higher mental functioning.” Noting the connection of depression to a runaway stress response, he notes “it makes sense to bolster this part of our body.” (100)
- “Dr. Lee started me on a regimen of supplements. learned about what the supplements did for me. I learned about the healing effects of nutrition.” (88)
- One individual reported, “At the urging of a good friend, I went to see a naturopath, who took all kinds of blood tests. She found many interesting things, all of which could theoretically have implications …The tests also found that (as most people are, it seems) I was severely deficient in vitamin D, so I’m taking mega-doses now.”
In different ways, these interventions attempt to correct various nutritional deficiencies. (98) Explaining that “as our bodies cannot produce omega 3 fatty acids, and our diets usually do not provide the optimal Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio necessary to achieve antidepressant effects,” William recounted his decision to take two capsules a day of fish oil. (100) The intent, in one case, was to find a “natural methods of boosting serotonin in the body and brain. As one person explained, in “treating anxiety and depression by naturally increasing serotonin levels through exercising, changed thinking and emotional reactions, and correct diet and supplements,” the hope was to “offer a healthier and certainly less risky way of beating depression.” (15)
Other times, individuals find these possibilities on their own. Michael describes hearing of a company called True Hope from a friend whose son grappling with bipolar disorder had tried everything and “now credits taking these pills with saving his life.” He said:
I looked at the site, and was skeptical. It looked like just a normal multivitamin mix to me. Nonetheless, they had a page linking to a number of clinical trials of the product, published in respected medical journals, which suggested positive outcomes. I figured I didn’t have much to lose, so I agreed to try it. A few weeks later, I seemed to be doing much better. Maybe it was just a placebo effect….but whatever it was, I was feeling great for the first time I could remember. (30)
And in an emotionally depleted state, one person said, “I was able to get together enough energy to read through the first step of TLC (dietary supplement), which prompted a “trip to The Vitamin Shoppe.” She then said, I started to take the recommended doses of the vitamins and noticed some slight changes in a couple of days.” (65)
Nutritional experiments—Taking things away. Along with infusing new nutrients into their diet, others spoke of removing and titrating specific things from their diet. One family described following Dr. Kelly Brogan’s dietary protocol for a daughter struggling. Although they “didn’t completely limit sugar and dairy,” their whole family “went gluten-free, organic, grass-fed beef and purged the house of most of our processed food.” In addition, “they started taking supplements and herbs.” Subsequently, they reported:
Within a week or two, we began seeing glimpses of our formerly happy, joyful child… We are now about two months in on this new lifestyle, our daughter is generally happy and at peace….I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that natural, organic eating and living that this book advocates is the key to helping our daughter overcome her depression and anxiety…and really for everyone to live a healthier, more vibrant life. (1)
Others describe similar shifts away from processed food and grain and towards more meat and vegetables:
- Julie said, “I was eating a lot of junk food and was, in general, a pretty unhappy person. I’ve even started a paleo diet to further help improve my health, and I’ve lost some weight.” (71)
- David said, “I completely dropped sugar from my diet and then began to follow a mostly gluten-free way of eating after reading Dr. David Perlmutter’s books Grain Brain and Brain Maker—which show the direct connection between gluten and inflammation in the body and brain, as well as how this can often be the cause of anxiety and depression. I dropped meat and chicken from my diet and increased the amount of green vegetables I was eating.” (59)
- Michael said, “What came out of my year without sugar, coffee, or alcohol? I got my life back. Whereas before I was a mess, with moods all over the place and energy levels in the gutter, for the past four years since I initiated that challenge, I have felt energized, and in control of my life.” (30)
Mikhaila experimented with reducing grain and relying more on meat—and experienced a surprisingly profound impact on her depression (67). Her experience convinced her father as well to “to eliminate everything but meat and leafy greens from his diet.” Since that dietary change, Jordan claims his depression and anxiety had dissipated almost entirely, along with “psoriasis, snoring, gingivitis, gastric reflux, even the floaters in his right eye.” (68)
One of the most dramatic examples of catalysts to emotional healing arising from dietary adjustments came from a man who had grappled with depression for a number of years, before finding a video interview on YouTube about a girl and her father whose family had clinical depression problems that ran in the family. This girl being interviewed had tried an exclusion diet and found that by cutting soybeans and derivatives from her diet, she was able to significantly reduce her symptoms, eventually to the point of no longer needing medication. For this individual, it seemed that no soy = no depression.
That made this man think about specific components of his diet. Previously, he had changed some aspects of his lifestyle which were helpful. But the turbocharger to healing really came when he experimented with an exclusion diet of his own. As his wife recounted during an interview:
He decided he wanted to try it. He started by eating only rice, brassicas, and beef for a month. During that month, he started feeling better. Then he slowly reintroduced food types, one at a time, but in large quantities to get a clear reading. The day he reintroduced beans, he decided to eat an entire can of beans. The next morning, the brain fog was back, and within two days the suicidal thoughts were back. Later that year he tried [beans] again, and had the same reaction. From what we can tell so far, every time he eats something from the bean family (Fabaceae), depression symptoms come back like clockwork. When he doesn’t eat legumes, the brain fog is not there, no suicidal thoughts, he can handle stressful situations better, and is even able to feel joy. (108)
This man was “amazed” to find out that legumes (beans, etc.) generated such pointed depression symptoms—and “it still does today.” (Previously, they were eating beans “every day”). His wife added that they’ve come to believe beans “causes inflammation in his body and brain. We don’t understand it 100%, but we know this solution was from God. And he is healed from his severe depression.” (108)
To some people, “God helped me figure out that beans are bad” might sound like an Onion story (it’s not, of course, it’s a bean story!). The larger point is the fact that these people tried experimenting with things until they found something that made a difference for them.
The guidance of intuition. Although a novel idea to many people, there’s also something intuitive about this. Michael described what he “already knew about my mental condition intuitively”:
(1) Sugar [messed] me up and contributed to my mood swings and (2) a healthy, low-sugar, low-refined-carbohydrate diet with lean meat and fresh fruits and vegetables buoyed my mood and helped me feel stable, and; (3) nutritional supplements such as various vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and herbs had the power to help me. (30)
Thomas likewise noted, “It’s not that I didn’t benefit from friends and mentors and doctors—they were instrumental in my own process. But what was surprising was how intuitively I could assess what was happening—’I’m going to really focus on nutrition now; I just know that’s really out of whack.” He continued:
And so, what starts with this tiny bit of awareness, this intention to be healthy and whole, it just starts to expand and permeate all the different aspects of life. That’s what I would communicate to people who are thinking they’re in a hopeless situation and it couldn’t get much worse and how could it possibly get better. Not to belittle that suffering, not to explain it away and say, ‘It gets better kid.’ It’s awful, and life can be so hard, and it’s hard to be a human being. It’s hard to take on the challenges that just come up in our awareness that characterize the human life cycle. Those things are so real. Yet equally real is our intuition to move towards wholeness, and to move towards health, and it starts with that single intention, to just take a look at what’s going on, and start to move in the direction you want to move in. (11)
As psychiatrist Judith Pentz says, “Our body actually has a certain amount of wisdom that, if we will listen, will speak to us.” Yet compared to our more common patterns of trusting external experts, this kind of attention to the wisdom of our own intuition can be unsettling, but even so exciting. As Gwen said:
I think it was just all those little threads from my life that came together and made it really clear to me that it’s OK to try to turn inward, listen inward, and put faith that the body knows how to heal itself if you are willing to sit with what’s there. And sometimes it’s really dark and scary and painful. [But] I came to understand that if you delve into it, that’s how you move through it. (110)
Detoxing from alcohol and caffeine. In addition to paring back on certain kinds of food, people described the challenging process of tapering off of commonly used substances and drugs, including both stimulants and relaxants. Michael described a challenge from a doctor to “stop eating refined sugar and stop drinking alcohol and coffee.” As he reported:
I decided to do it. A yearlong personal challenge: no refined sugar, no coffee, no alcohol, for one year. It was May 1, 2007 when I undertook the challenge. I was just twelve days short of my thirtieth birthday. I would have no bite or sip of any of those things until May 1 of the next year. It was either this or continue to risk death with my suicidal bipolar. (30)
Michael continued, “I’ve been eating a healthy low-glycemic index, and avoiding stimulants and almost all refined sugar.” (30) Others added:
- “I’ve been staying away from caffeine and other stimulants that can play havoc with moods and energy levels, which has been helpful.” (59)
- Jim described eliminating all forms of drugs, alcohol, and coffee from his life—in what feels like more of a clean, spiritual life. “I rarely drink coffee. I’m very serious about no alcohol, no drugs. Life is too beautiful.” (73)
As William explained:
Both coffee and alcohol are stimulants that have a rather significant and immediate impact on the physiology of the body. Due to its high caffeine content, coffee does indeed give you that energy boost. The problem is not so much getting on this rush of caffeine but getting off. Personally, I found that after a few hours, I would experience a hard emotional landing once the caffeine effect wore off. I would be much more susceptible to negative mood swings. Caffeine just messed too much with the physiological rhythm, or emotional curve, I was trying to achieve for it to be beneficial to my recovery. So, I gave it up. The same goes for similar stimulants like energy drinks. (100)
Alcohol works in a similar way but is far more detrimental. It negatively impacts the emotional curve by bending it out of shape, usually pushing me down…I found that while too much caffeine derails me for a day, effects and reverberations of alcohol on the state of my mind and mood could last for up to three days. I completely abstain from drinking now. I figured that my mental health was far more important. (100)
As with any other addictive substance, it was a process for people to taper down their levels—one that involved navigating the temporary turbulence of withdrawal effects. Michael, who started the year challenge, elaborated:
The first two weeks of the quest were hell. The alcohol wasn’t that hard—-I had been a mostly well-behaved social drinker throughout my twenties—but the coffee and sugar got to me. All I could think about was coffee and sugar. Coffee sugar coffee sugar coffee sugar. It was like being extremely horny, except for coffee and sugar instead of sex. Coffee sugar coffee sugar coffee sugar—thoughts on instant replay in my mind 24/7, even in my dreams. Headaches, fatigue, depression, haze. I almost gave up the challenge on several occasions during that first two weeks. But I knew this was something I had to do, if I wanted to stay alive. One morning, two weeks into the challenge, I woke up. The haze in my mind had lifted. It was a clear, crisp, brilliant sunny day in my mind—the first such day of sunny internal weather for years. (30)
Upping physical activity. In addition to adjusting what people consume, many emphasized the impact of increased levels of exercise and movement in their life (4). For some people, this was restarting a prior habit of physical activity—e.g., Gwen said, “I started exercising again” (110). For other people, like Michael, they described the impact of “the first organized exercise program I’ve been on in my adult life.” (30)
Sometimes this was an “exercise routine” under the advisement of a physician. (77) Other times, they just tried “looking after myself physically,” especially “with cardio-type exercise.” (59)
Sometimes this cardio exercise was mild—e.g., “I started doing some light exercise on the exercise bike (after clearing the dust).” (65) In other cases, it’s more intense. One person described beginning a “vigorous exercise regimen” online—saying, “Man, that thing kicks my butt, but it feels great.” A mother described “getting the kids schlepped to the gym with me….Fast forward a year. I have lost 40 pounds as a convenient side effect of the exercise (from a size 16 to a size 4), ran 2 half-marathons, and completely changed my life.” (2) Running is the most common form of physical activity mentioned:
- David spoke of making some further changes to their “exercise regime. I began running five to six times a week each morning at around 5am. I started off with just a 3 km run and then increased this to 4 km and then 5 km most weekdays. On weekends, I extended my running and eventually I was running 8-10 kms at least once each weekend.” (59)
- William said, “I have found that running works the best for me …to get the strongest anti-depressant effects [which] have been observed from aerobic exercise. I run 3-4 times a week in the evenings for 20 minutes each time to achieve my target heart rate.” (100)
- One woman who claims that “running is my therapy” turned to high-intensity movement with her dog at a time when she was “chronically depressed, occasionally manic, and unable to jog for more than 60 seconds at a time.” But Nita eventually “discovered an inner strength she didn’t know she possessed,” even to the point of completing a marathon. As she put it, “Anyone who has struggled with depression knows the ways the mind can defeat you. However, it is possible to transform yourself with the power of running. You may learn that you can endure more than you think, and that there’s no other depression therapy quite like pavement beneath your feet.” (39)
Even milder forms of movement also seem to make a substantial difference. As Julie said, “I am spending lots of time outdoors walking my dog.” (71) Vicki added, “For my body, for me, movement is very important. I love hiking with my dogs.”
This same woman went on to emphasize the benefit she derived from other kinds of gentle movement: “I also love yoga. Yoga helps me feel strong. It’s a practice that is done with a lot of compassion. We relate to the body through movement….And that I love.” (12)
In addition to companion pets, it was helpful to have other people’s encouragement in continuing to stay physically active. As mother recounted about her son, “I encouraged him to come to the gym with me because I know that physical exercise can help the mind also. Some days he didn’t want to go but I always persuaded him never to give up.” (107)
More light. Related to walking and running in nature, others described the powerful impact of increased light in their life—either through “practicing light therapy” (2) or putting “a light box on order” (65). William described a combination of methods:
Light has an incredible effect on our well being….In my case, I simply stand in the window of my apartment for a few minutes in the morning, letting sunlight fall on my retina. You can do this with either eyes open or closed. During fall or winter, when sunlight is sparse, however, I use a light box. I usually set it at the breakfast table or my desk at work and let it fall on my retina for 30 minutes. (100)
Juanita said, “I started to garden and take in vitamin D.” (47)
More nature. Being outside to get what some are now calling “vitamin N” or “connecting with nature” (99), also stood out across stories. As Vicki elaborated:
Being in nature is for me is like an elixir. It’s like drinking in health. I need it. All seasons—I’ll bundle up in the winter and go in the mountains. We just get out. We see people. We see nature. I think nature is a great equalizer—helps us return to a place of well-being. And it’s everywhere we look. (12)
Clearly, the impact of this outside world is more than just physical. Marsha spoke of a “big difference between pictures of natural beauty and being in natural beauty” where in her experience “you have a sense of being and oneness.” (43). An older gentleman, Mendel, reflected:
The healing we get from silence and spending it in nature is becoming increasingly rare, but it’s more vital than ever before. Going for a walk on the beach, or looking closely at a tree or a flower, always helps me return to peace. Nature attunes my senses to the divine. Everything I hear, see and sense is beauty. (44)
Matt likewise said:
Connecting with the natural world in my exercise and recreation—mostly quietly, but sometimes rambunctiously—was so powerful that my wife encouraged me no matter the seeming sacrifice of time. I found solo and social recreation remarkably rejuvenating, providing relief and renewal that brought more packets of pure joy. (6)
Melissa likewise admitted, “I was most alive and in my flow when immersed in nature, completely outside my burdensome head with senses engaged and standing in rapt attention. My entire being craved the peace, quiescence and elaborate simplicity of the outside world.” She continued, “I depended on nature to rescue my heavy head from endless worrying, ruminating and overthinking, ushering in calm and moving me into my heart to find peace.” Melissa went on to reflect upon why natural settings had such an impact on her:
Being simply an observer in the center of this boundless ecosystem, aware of just how much was occurring without my involvement, put my overblown sense of importance into perspective. In the realm of this perfectly tuned machine existing well before and well after me, my problems were minuscule and my presence unnecessary. It certainly embraced me as an observer, but was perfectly capable of playing its poignant song alone. While in one sense devastating, I simultaneously felt my smallness to be reassuring as it lifted the burden of responsibility off my shoulders…For when I harmonized with music, nature or any other truly palpable experience, the clamor in my head subsided and I was free to soar. (38)
Better sleep. Closely tied to the benefits of more physical movement are parallel benefits from more rest—each prominent themes in stories of healing. “Sleep is a priceless gem” one person said (99). Gwen added, “I just gave myself, like, a period of regeneration and I slept more. And it really broke me out of [the difficult emotional place].” (110) Vicki told me similarly:
For me, something as basic as sleep is crucial. I’m very sensitive to sleep deprivation, of not having enough sleep—it makes me anxious. So, over the years I’ve come to know what my triggers are, and those things that make that propensity, that tendency in me worse, or much more sensitive. Lack of sleep is definitely one of those. So, I always try to get as much sleep as I can, or get the sleep that I need. (12)
One of the first people I interviewed in Chicago told me, “If I go without sleep and start partying a lot and get overextended and stressed, yeah, I’ll hit depression….I know the recipe for madness: I lose my sleep; drink too much…and get involved in too many things: that’s the recipe for madness for me.”
Another individual similarly recounted, “If my sleep schedule would be disturbed for whatever reason, I would become emotionally unbalanced for the next few days. The effect of good sleep on your physiology and daily performance is very visible.” This individual added, I noticed that it is easier for me to fall asleep after a workout” earlier in the day—noting, “The exercise would tire me out and help me achieve deeper and more restful sleep.”
Sometimes this return of deeper sleep came after a long period of time –“I regained my sleeping pattern,” Moni said. (46) Yet in some cases, the sleep seemed to arise from underlying healing, rather than being directly influenced by the same—e.g., David said, “I started to experience a restful sleep that I had not experienced in years. I remember lying down to sleep one night and having that experience of your head hitting the pillow and then waking up what felt like a minute later and it being morning. I was feeling rested, refreshed and with no trace of anxiety in my mind or body at all.” (59)
The most powerful experience illustrating the potent influence of sleep came from one younger man, who described focusing on “getting my sleep patterns down” by deciding, “from now on, phone is off at 10 and I’m going to be in bed, reserving time for the practice of sleeping in my life.” Thomas later reflected:
In hindsight, it was kind of my sleep pattern falling apart that created this vicious cycle, where if I wasn’t sleeping well, then my body wasn’t resting properly, and then I would manifest physical symptoms of illness, things like that. I just had a hard time getting a good night’s sleep, and the more those physical symptoms started to manifest, the harder it was to go to sleep at night. It really dawned on me how profound my sleep disorder was… I remember staying up into the early hours of the morning listening to a Dire Straits album just for something to distract my thinking mind. I think about—you hear about Chinese torture of dripping water—it’s not so bad the first day. But after 5 years of that, someone can start to go crazy. I think the insomnia was a manifestation of the general anxiety that was in my life. I think the insomnia was a symptom of something even deeper than that, and it manifested as a sleep disturbance.
He went on to reflect on the big discovery that began to finally change his sleep:
I didn’t appreciate until years later the way that the mind digests imagery, and the way that it works with experience. We’re all pretty sensitive to the way we eat food and how we feel after a meal—reasonably—if you have a big meal of, say, fried fast food, you’re probably going to feel a bit of a slump in energy and kind of a listless quality about you. I don’t think we have the same sensitivity for what goes on with the mind, what goes on in our psyche. And what I mean by that, is I realized, as I was really addressing my insomnia head on, I realized what kind of content I was absorbing throughout the day. And whether they were challenging emotional relationships or negative imagery streaming into my mind, that was kind of sitting in my gut, like the proverbial 6 pounds of undigested red meat that they say you can accumulate after a lifetime of meat-eating. I realized just how much gunk was there. And I was taking that to bed, and I was dreaming about it and waking up with the emotional residue of that content.
This one insight prompted a small, but impactful shift in how he approached the time before bed. As Thomas summarized:
Perhaps the most significant shift I made as I was addressing the insomnia was to just pay attention to my intake—what was my mental, psychic diet, and how much time was I dedicating to digesting that intake, what I was ingesting. Once I really tended to that, I might do some calming exercises before bedtime, maybe 20 minutes of breathing, working through that undigested material, so that my body was actually going into rest—a deeper rest than I had known before…that created this virtuous cycle of getting a good night’s sleep, I would wake up feeling not even good by a normal person’s standards, but good for me, moving in the right direction. I could feel it. That was significant to me. Over time…really paying attention to the content I was taking in in my life. That allowed me to sleep better, and that kind of cascaded into other fortunate turnarounds.
He reflected in closing, “It was in hindsight that I realized how significant sleep was in holding all my physical and mental health together.” (11) After describing the impact of sleep in his own life, William reflected:
Your sleep should be non-negotiable. The amount of work or activities you have to do is always endless but the number of hours in a day is finite…personally, during the depths of my own depression, I used to sleep 9 hours per night, going to bed at 10 and getting up at 7. Being consistent is key here. (100)
As you can see, any one such shift: sleep, exercise, or nutrition, is potentially significant. Clearly, these adjustments are not independent either, with one often impacting another. For instance, I once visited with a family whose depressed teenager felt unable to commit to anything except getting a little more sunshine. After two weeks of getting outside more to play sports with his father, this young man felt enough energy to experiment with adjustments to his diet, which triggered other improvements and a new momentum of gradual healing. (15)
Minimizing or overlooking lifestyle shifts. Although much of this may seem obvious, “most people don’t make the connection between their physiology (diet, physical health, sleep hygiene) and their mental health” as William noted. He went on to emphasize (as scientists do) “why physiology is so critical to your mental health” (100), with others attesting from their own life to the value of taking a serious look at the emotional consequences of “living an unhealthy lifestyle.” (98)
Juanita admitted in retrospect about being among those who were “sleep deprived, ate too many fast-food meals, and dependent on caffeinated drinks to give us a boost to keep going.”—reflecting a “failure to recognize the necessity of rest, proper nutrition and exercise” and “the many ways that I abused my body, mind and spirit.” As she puts it, “I had no idea that I could destroy my life by pure ignorance.”
“The body can recover far more quickly than the mind and emotions,” She then remarked, “its energies rebounding after substantial rest, proper nutrition and care. On a cellular level, new life is being regenerated.” (47) Although “your physicality is very important as your body plays its own part in how we feel” Jonathan said, “There is a tendency to try and just deal with the mental aspects” of emotional problems, while “neglecting your physical self.” (96) For this reason, many people continue to push their bodies to the max. The man who spoke of knowing his “recipe for madness” continued:
You’re not gonna be able to let yourself get sleep deprived your whole life…You’ve gotta kinda watch this and not think that you can go without sleep just because it feels like you could…You can’t do that to your brain for years on end. You also can’t not feed yourself…You’ve got to take care of your body because your body takes care of your brain.
It doesn’t help, of course, that some professionals can minimize these contributors to our emotional well-being. As Michael reflected:
I asked the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time whether he thought there was any link between nutrition and mental health. He looked at me as though I had just asked whether there was any link between mental health and UFO rectal probes. “There is absolutely no evidence of any link whatsoever between dietary choices and mental health,” he said curtly, and changed the subject.
Explaining why he discounted this advice, Michael went on to say, “But I knew, from experimenting with my dietary choices based on these books, that I experienced drastic differences in how I felt, based on how much (or how little) refined sugar and refined carbs I was eating.” (30)
Of course, there are many professionals that recognize this reality. And many others describe supportive professionals that guided and helped encourage their adjustments in this area:
- “I was somewhat nervous about trying [this] approach, but Dr. Lee quickly eased those fears during my first visit. She thoroughly explained … how nutrition and the use of nutritional supplements worked together to promote healing. I left that first appointment still depressed, but with a strong sense that I had finally found someone that understood what I was going through and could actually help me get well.” (104)
- Michael reported, “In Dr. Hoffman’s office, I told him my symptoms of mood swings, that I had been diagnosed as depressed and later bipolar II, and my history of treatment with Prozac, Paxil, lithium and other drugs in the past. Dr. Hoffman told me there is mounting clinical evidence linking mood swings to blood sugar issues, and that in his experience bipolar patients respond well to cutting out refined sugar, and coffee and alcohol (which affect blood sugar) from their diets. ‘You should stop eating refined sugar altogether, and stop drinking alcohol and coffee,’ he told me.” (30)
This time, the man’s intuition aligned with professional advice—but other parts of him resisted the message: “In the back of my mind, I knew what he was saying was right. I knew intuitively that I didn’t feel well when I consumed these things. But it just seemed so onerous, so unlikely, such a killjoy way to go through life.”
“Forget it,” Michael heard a “voice” in his mind saying. So, he told the doctor, “What else do you have for me, because that’s not going to happen.”
The practitioner looked at the man compassionately, and said, “Your life is your life. But if you want to feel better and stop feeling these mood swings, I recommend you try what I suggested.” After a period of ignoring the advice, this man “decided to do it”—ultimately accepting the “yearlong personal challenge” described above to have “no refined sugar, no coffee, no alcohol, for one year.” (30)
Certainly, none of this means we need to become fanatical. As Jonathan summarized:
I am not advocating that you become a fitness fanatic…that only drinks soy milk and eats tofu, it is important that you understand the connection between eating healthily, exercise and cutting down on alcohol and how neglecting these physical aspects can leave you more susceptible [to emotional struggles]. (96)
So, for those taking notes for their own experiences, these stories suggest there’s no need to run a marathon or commit to lifelong soya milk and (unless you dig it). But rather to keep an eye out on adjustments to what “Big 3” could make a difference.
Designing Supportive Physical Settings and Schedules
Creating uplifting and beautiful settings. Throughout this study, you will see references to people coming to appreciate beauty more around them—in relationships, in the natural world, and in the sometimes messy course of living. In addition to going out and seeking beautiful settings, you also see people doing little things to bring greater beauty to their own normal places. For instance, Marsha said, “I learned the value of beauty, and that the effort to bring beauty into any setting is worth the work it entails.” (43)
“Always a generally neat and tidy person,” Wendy was shocked by how her home “fell into disarray” after suffering through several episodes of depression. While acknowledging, “I knew I needed to take charge of my life and my home” she went on to admit how impossible that felt:
But, I also knew that thinking about everything that needed to be organized in my home was totally overwhelming, which made the task feel even more impossible. Looking at my massive to-do list made me want to give up right away. And, when I looked at my entire house and saw all of that disorganization, I didn’t even want to start because I never thought I’d be able to finish.
What ended up helping her make transformations in her home was taking one small step at a time—“I needed to break things down into smaller chunks. So, I did just that.” As Wendy continued:
I started to organize one space, one room at a time. I actually began in my kitchen.” As a place she always loved in her home, she said “getting my kitchen organized was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself and my family. I was happier, and I just felt lighter after we finished going through our kitchen. We got rid of everything we didn’t need, which meant we didn’t have all of that junk weighing us down.
This experience gave this woman empathy to others “who struggle with cluttered and disorganized homes” due to the chaos of their inner emotional struggles. That prompted her to become a professional organizer—and dedicate herself to helping others “identify what has created disorder in their lives” and then “helping them create systems” so they can get their life back in order, outside as a support to the internal work.
Wendy encourages people to just pick one room in your house. Then “close your eyes, and ask yourself: if you could snap your fingers and organize any space in your home [in a better state], which space would you take on? If you could have just one room in your house organized, which one would make you feel happiest or the most relieved? Is there one particular room that’s stressing you out more than the others?” If those questions don’t lead to an obvious answer, she adds, “you might ask yourself where you and your family spend most of your time.” (42)
As part of improving her environment, Carrie described cutting back on “chemical cleaners and commercial beauty supplies” to make her lived experience more free of toxins. (1) In large and small ways, these kinds of environmental adjustments can make a measurable difference.
Habitual patterns. When combined with the appreciation of a need to “keep moving,” even when not feeling well, we can appreciate why set patterns, habits and routines can be helpful—bringing together, as they often do, various components of recovery. William highlighted the value in his experience of building a daily routine to achieve more healing—writing about what a “physiologically healthy schedule looks like.” (100) Reflecting on how “depression can wreak havoc on our bodies and biology,” Matt continued:
In response, physical self-care is like an athlete’s pre-season conditioning, giving the patient a fighting chance against depression on game day. For me, regular physical exercise, good nutrition, healthy weight, adequate downtime, rest, recreation, and sleep all contribute to general physical, mental, and emotional well-being, helping immunize me against depression. Maintaining a daily routine also helps stabilize my mood. Like persons in recovery, these are my “dailies.” (6)
Sarah described a “wise activity list” they adopted “to practice as a routine.” This started after coming across a story of another woman who found a healing boon from some basic repetitions in her routine: “To keep herself together, she resolved to do six things per day: to do something for herself, do something for someone else, do something you don’t want to do but that needed doing, do a physical exercise, do a mental exercise, and say an original prayer that always includes counting her blessings.” She recollected:
This modest list seemed realistic to me and I resolved to follow it. I was not always faithful…sometimes doing something for myself could be an activity as simple as having a cup of tea or reading a book, or maybe taking a walk, which would double as a physical exercise. (36)
One person described a certain prayer she would also invoke “whenever I started feeling a panic attack coming on.” Others described the impact from ongoing “prayer, meditation.” Nicole described “daily spiritual” practices including “worship, singing praises, the psalms, reading the Bible…doing this on a daily basis, I started receiving peace.” (102)
This kind of routine helps take advantage of the power of habit. As Jonathan described them, “Habits are sly old creatures that like to hide in the background, subtly persuading you to do the same thing in the same way, day after day, year after year, while all the time letting you think you’re making all the decisions.” (96)
All this, once again, helps reinforce forward momentum behaviorally which sustains and advances emotional healing. Keeping up momentum can be difficult—and there are some Jedi mind tricks that people describe using to help convince their body to keep doing what their mind is wrestling to accept. As Jonathan admitted, “When I used to feel depression coming on, I used to say to myself, “oh no, the curtains are drawing.” I was literally telling myself to batten down the hatches, to keep my head down for a while. I can now see how wrong that was.” He continued, “Hi ho, hi ho, its off to work we go! Because this is what we now need to do. We need to work at changing the way your life is at the moment.” (96)
Owning your healing. All of this reflects a larger theme of people regaining their agency to act—and really “owning” the process of recovery.
“If we believe we are ill because we have a problem that is beyond our own control,” said one man, “then you simply set yourself up to be at the mercy of a force that cannot be held accountable for our actions.” After sharing his story, Jonathan said she hopes her experience “will hopefully let you see for yourself the false impression that you are somehow trapped forever” in emotional struggles—adding, “you have just convinced yourself that all hope is gone but it’s not true. Hope does not end with some crap narrative in your head.” (96)
Melissa admitted, “I had spent an entire lifetime believing I was at the whim of forces out of my control-namely mortality, relationships, circumstances and my choices…And I was drowning in futility over trying so desperately to control the uncontrollable, but no closer to doing so than I had ever been.” This person described a pattern of “wallowing in negativity, never turning despair into purpose-driven action and left exhausted and victimized, battered by the current with seemingly no way back to shore.”
This woman went on to describe realizing that “I was actually taking positive action each day in choosing to live rather than die. This meant I must somehow feel a sense of hope for the future!” even if it was sometimes based on a “small spark of possibility.” (38) Ashley highlighted the impact on her of the “idea of choice—not that having a disease is a choice, but the way you approach your disease is a matter of choice, and that gives you back some element of power in your life.” She added, “That’s incredibly important because the powerlessness pushes you under.”
Ashley went on to say, “I set my own path.” (75) Another individual encouraged others to “be the queen/king of life and not the victim of life” and work towards “gaining control over your losing health” and reaching after “how to achieve happiness.” (99)
In stark contrast with the way people often feel, this leaves people with a sense of being in control of their own healing. “Once I realized that my depression was an injury that I could heal like any other,” said one Alexi, “I suddenly felt empowered.” As she continued:
I felt like I could take action and attack the injury just like I’d attack any other injury. The hardest thing was before—when I saw my depression as a personal failure. The shift from feeling helpless to feeling in control was the greatest feeling ever.
Alexi (who had past experience in athletics) continued, “I think many people, especially athletes, make the same mistake of not taking a mental ‘injury’ as seriously as they would a physical injury”—adding, “This is probably because a mental injury is invisible and doesn’t necessarily limit you from showing up to work or otherwise continuing your regular routine, however terrible it might feel inside. I want to shift that perspective.” She concluded:
Depression is like when you fall and have a scrape on your knee—except instead of the cut being on your knee, it is on your brain. The point is, your brain is a body part that can get injured like any other, and it can also heal like any other. For example, a hamstring injury starts out as a sore leg that can be fixed with some rest and physical therapy. But eventually, the sore leg will turn into a torn tendon that needs medical intervention because it can no longer heal on its own. My brain was the same way. I had been depressed long enough and severely enough that I needed medical help. I needed therapy from a doctor. (81)
Admitting, “the depressions were strong,” Moni said, “but…my determination to heal this ‘disorder’ became stronger. Being a born competitor and former Karate world champion, I was never going to give up this fight.” (46)
The power of individual choices to move our emotional health in the right direction left people feeling empowered. “You are responsible for your own happiness” William said, so “stop blaming others.” (100) Melissa similarly commented:
I could choose the actions, mindset and attitude with which I greeted each day. This meant I could either succumb to suffocating despair, or stop “hoping” circumstances would inevitably improve and fight to claw my way out of darkness. Although finding that light was horribly challenging most days and virtually impossible others, the choice to embrace life and endeavor to do so was entirely my own.
This same woman recounted, “I finally came to see that the only aspects of existence I could actually control were the attitude with which I greeted each day, the specific actions I took to live a meaningful life, and the manner by which I responded to and treated those around me.” Melissa continued:
My ultimate power came in striving to live my life authentically in doing what I believed was right, and treating others with compassion. I then needed to accept the ramifications, good or bad, from that sincere behavior.
Admitting her tendency towards blame and resentment, she said “It was therefore imperative to take ownership of my perceptions, my attitude, and my behavior”—continuing, “Additionally, I needed to make certain my inner circle exuded only positive energy lifting me up to live wholly in my heart.”
Instead of waking up every morning certain “life wasn’t fair,” “why was this happening to me?” and “I can’t take this anymore” as if powerless with nothing in my control, I started answering those statements with: “You do have control and a choice Melissa.”
Melissa described this as a “change from a helpless victim to one taking responsibility for her life choices” as an attitude shift that “alleviated that deep sense of hopelessness in bringing order to chaos.” As simple as it sounds, she described her “major awakening lesson” as simply, “we can choose life and the attitude with which we greet each day. Or said differently, we can continue to drown in despair, or take concrete action and channel our pain into positive creation and connection.” (38)
Stress-busting the life around you. A final theme to highlight is how many people described realizing and responding to the negative impact of stress on their emotional health. Jada spoke of recognizing the tangible impact of “the amount of stress I allow” (78)—with Danny emphasizing the impact of “living an unbalanced life.” (98)
As Juanita recounted, “Every person or organization I was associated with wanted something from me.” Seeking to be available with “no limits, no holds barred,” she acknowledged, “I had not developed the ability to set boundaries or have realistic expectations for myself.” (47)
This stress can combine with other unaddressed issues to cause serious problems. In the case of this woman, a “complex mix of stress, disappointment, grief, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and discouragement had been building up for weeks, months, and years, but I discounted the warning signs.”
Seeking greater order to reduce financial stress. Some individuals assessed spoke about navigating financial issues better as a way to reduce stress and mitigate the impact of stress on their mental health. “Other practical elements” of his healing journey, according to Matt, “included finding contentment and calm as we avoided debt and learned to live well within our means.” (6)
Growing up, my parents never discussed finances with me. The closest they got was reminding us that “money doesn’t grow on trees” whenever we asked for something. So, as I got older, I had no idea what a healthy relationship with money should be. I didn’t know how to create a budget or how to manage debt. And, like most American young adults, I was being bombarded with advertisements from lenders asking me to open up credit cards or personal loans.
Understandably, then, this woman admitted, “I made some mistakes with money when I was younger because I was never taught how I should be managing it. I want to break that cycle with my children.” She continued, “Taking charge of our finances was one of the best things that my husband and I did. It gave us so much freedom, including the freedom to make choices based on our desires and happiness because we weren’t overburdened by crippling debt.” (42)
Being okay with a certain level of stress. Even while reducing the amount of sheer stress, it’s clear that some amount of stress will always remain (some acute and some mild). When it comes to the inescapable stress in our lives, Marsha underscored the huge value of growing in “distress tolerance” and “emotion regulation.” Compared with the typical “focus is on changing distressing events and circumstances” within the mental health system, Marsha said “learning to tolerate distress can be just as effective, and more readily achieved.” (43)
Learning to sit with and channel existing stress seemed like an important part of healing in different stories. As Mark noted, “I was feeling overwhelmed but had developed a certain comfort with that feeling over the years. Stress seemed to encourage my creative impulsivity now, rather than the destructive impulsivity it triggered before. I had learned to tap into my stress, to redirect it toward something more helpful.” (25)
Falling forward. In this part of the mural of deepening healing, we’ve described people making adjustments in diet, rest, physical activity, sunlight, the physical environment and schedule of their lives, and the basic amount of stress. Lest it’s not completely clear, none of this reflects—for any of these individuals—some kind of linear march upward. Rather, there are starts and stops, ebbs and flows, fits and turns, on people’s journeys of recovery.
All this happens gradually, with “the positive reinforcement” of each change “contin[uing] to build and layer” as Mark pointed it, even as recovery “evolved and changed in unexpected ways.”
This man went on to say, “With time, and mistakes, and beautiful, rare victories, you learn, you grow, you spiral up. I’m grateful to have learned that from my worst moments. Otherwise, my best moments might have passed me by uncherished.” (25)
Struggle then, became viewed by many as an opportunity, not just a problem. As Mark added, “I was beginning to consider setbacks as pivots to something else,” which allowed him to even begin experiencing “a certain gratitude for my struggle.” (25)
Photo by Jonas Kaiser on Unsplash