In my latest post I went through the first four actions that will reverse the cycle of depression: exercise, decision making, sleep and developing positive habits. Today we will look at the other four actions: biofeedback, gratitude, social interactions and therapy.
If you missed last week’s post and want to get back to the basics of neuroscience first click here.
Action #5: Biofeedback
So what is biofeedback?
It’s ok if you’ve never heard of it, I hadn’t either until I read the “The Upward Spiral” from Dr Alex Korb. Biofeedback is the fact that the brain changes its activity depending on what the body is doing. So this part is all about understanding the relationship between the body and the brain.
Our brains control our bodies, especially when it comes to emotions. For example, if you feel scare, your heart beats faster. But like everything else in this article this is something that can be reversed: the brain changes its activity depending on what the body is doing.
Simple actions like changing your posture or slowing your breathing can impact your brain activity and as a result your stress level, your thoughts and even your mood. And so you can increase the effects of biofeedback by increasing your awareness of your body. This is something I have briefly mentioned before in How to raise your mood when you are feeling low.
Biofeedback in depression
Negative facial expression, withdrawn posture, increased muscle tension, and reduced heart-rate variability are all symptoms of begin depressed. But they are not just results of depression, they are also part of the cause.
The good news is that you can change that by taking a series of small actions.
Let’s get you started
Smiling is very powerful: it increases positive feelings. Also when you are smiling you are more likely to perceive positive emotions in other people, which can influence your mood.
People think we smile because we feel happy but the other way is true too: we can be happy because we smile.
All you have to do is smile.
- Stand up straight
Posture is a very important source of biofeedback. A confident posture may not automatically make you happier but it does modulate your brain’s response to your thoughts. It also gives you more energy.
All you have to do is: keep your chin up, stand up straight and stick your chest out. You will feel more decisive, think positive thoughts and increase your energy level.
For more on this, watch the superwoman stance.
- Calm your face
When you frown your brain thinks that you are upset or worried. So when your eyebrow muscles are tensed, you feel more negative emotions and fewer positive ones.
All you have to do is relax your eyebrows (and wear sunglasses on sunny days so you don’t frown) and relax your jaw.
- Change your breathing
Changing your breathing is a powerful tool for reversing the cycle of depression because it is one of the quickest ways to change your emotional state. Different types of breathing have different effects on the body and the brain.
Personally I am using a breathing app which gives me 4 options: training, balance, relaxation and energy.
- Relax your muscles
When you are feeling stressed or anxious your muscle tend to tense up. And unfortunately that won’t go away on its own. This is how I regularly end up with trapped nerves! Here is what you can do:
– Stretching helps relax your muscles and goes a long way toward calming the nervous system. And it stimulates endorphins and endocannabinoids.
– Get a massage. Personally I get a massage at least once a month as maintenance.
Action #6: Gratitude
I have already mentioned the power of gratitude and how it can reverse the cycle of depression when I did the gratitude challenge: “The gratitude challenge (or the recipe for happiness)” and “The gratitude challenge part 2: the results”.
This is a vast subject for which a lot of research has been done (see articles above) so I will only cover the basics today.
The benefits of gratitude
- Decreases the symptoms of depression, reducing anxiety and the likelihood of suicidal thoughts
- Improves physical health
- Increases social support, i.e. makes you feel more connected with others
The effect of gratitude on the brain
- Improves activity in Dopamine circuits
- Boosts Serotonin
- Improves sleep
Let’s get you started
The most recommended exercise is holding a gratitude journal. You should spend a few minutes each day to write down 3 things that you are grateful for on that specific day.
They can be small things like a small favour someone did for you that day, or they can be big things like the fact that you were born in a first world country. And I don’t know about you but I am personally rather grateful to have running water in my flat.
But there are other techniques. See “The gratitude challenge (or the recipe for happiness)” for a complete list of techniques.
Variants of gratitude
- Optimism, or being grateful for the possibility of good things to come
- Appreciation, especially appreciation of humour
Action #7: Social interactions
Depression makes you want to be alone. It is important to recognise that this is another perverse symptom of depression and that, just like with exercise, the cure is in doing the opposite of what you feel like doing. In this case, it means being around people.
The benefits of social interactions for your brain
Research has shown that interacting with others can reverse the cycle of depression.
Social interactions change the activity in the brain, mainly by boosting Oxytocin and Dopamine levels and this can do the following things for you:
– Reduce pain and discomfort
– Improve your mood
– Ease stress and anxiety
– Social support counteracts social rejection
– Decrease depressive symptoms; and
– Increase calmness and happiness
Let’s get you started
- Be around people
Don’t stay home alone. Go somewhere, anywhere, where there are people, like a coffee shop or a library. You don’t have to interact with others if you don’t feel like it. Just being in the same physical space as others can help.
- Do an activity with a friend
This allows you to engage with others without having to talk too much. This is a good place to start when you don’t feel ready for full-on social interactions.
- Help yourself by helping others
Volunteering is a great way to increase positive emotions. Doing something for others will make you feel good about yourself and you will be around genuinely nice people who want to help others.
- Hugs and handshakes
Touching others is one of the primary ways to release oxytocin so go for it but please keep it appropriate!
- Spend more time with your friends
Make an effort to see your friends more often, organise meet-ups. This will also impact the decision-making circuit that we discussed in the first part of this article. If your friends and close family members are far away, call them.
- Get a dog
Having a dog can help to reverse the cycle of depression in several ways:
– You will exercise more because you will be walking your dog several times a day
– You will look after the dog which will force you to do something that is not focusing on yourself
– You might interact more with strangers because of the dog – think about it, if you see someone walking a dog, do you smile and say hi more easily than with other strangers?
– You will increase your oxytocin every time you have a cuddle with your dog
Action #8: Therapy
Dr Alex Korb recommends therapy and medication together.
Now I agree and disagree on this. I agree that you should try therapy but I disagree on medication. For more on my opinion on this topic, see my article Let’s talk about antidepressants.
But I also have a different view on the type of therapy. Of course understanding what triggers depression for you is important and will help you in time see the warning signs before you feel low, so you can act on it and reverse the cycle.
But traditional psychotherapy is not the only type of therapy and you should explore what is right for you.
Having tried psychotherapy, hypnotherapy and CBT I have a strong preference for the last two, hypnotherapy being the absolute winner for me.
Traditional psychotherapy is a very slow process. The therapist has to build rapport and trust before the work can really start. And when the real work start the therapist is up against the tricks of your mind.
Your unconscious mind stores everything. It is like the most reliable hard drive ever. But in order to protect you from pain, your conscious mind doesn’t let you access all of it. It kindly distorts, generalises or deletes information that you can access consciously. So the therapist has to push you to bring back the memories that you need to process. And that can take a very long time, in most cases a couple of years.
This is where hypnotherapy is genius. You can drastically reduce the time that you need to process old traumas if you let the therapist speak directly to your unconscious mind.
This has worked wonders for me. I have solved a childhood trauma that I had spent years working on with previous therapists and couldn’t solve in one hypnotherapy session.
That speaks for itself.
So what now?
So now that you know about these 8 actions that can reverse the cycle of depression, what next?
I would suggest that you choose 3 areas of the 8 to work on first. For each topic set yourself a 3 month goal for each area using the SMART goal method and break them down into small actionable steps. Get started. And let me know how you get on in the comments below.