15 Practical Ways to Prevent and Reduce Anxiety and Depression
Over the last ten years, because of what I’ve experienced in my personal and professional life, I’ve learned an enormous amount about anxiety, depression, and coping. My teachers have been parents of children with autism and sensory issues, licensed clinical psychologists, alternative health doctors and innovators in integrative medicine, spiritual leaders, and regular people who have overcome anxiety and depression and are eager to share practical guidance with others. They’ve inspired me to tell you about 15 practical ways you can prevent and lesson anxiety and depression and foster physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellness.
The statistics on anxiety and depression in the U.S. are alarming. Eighteen percent of Americans have an anxiety disorder. The lifetime risk for depression is 17 percent. And half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with anxiety. But regardless of how many people have diagnosed mood disorders, one fifth of Americans (and a quarter of American women) take pharmaceutical medications to alter their brain’s neurotransmitters and affect their perception and moods. Some of these medications are antipsychotics, others are antidepressants, antianxiety medications, and so on.
Obviously, we have a problem in our culture! Too many people aren’t coping well. While the medical community recommends therapy and medication as the standard treatments for anxiety and depression, a multipronged approach to anxiety and depression just makes sense. There is more than just medications and therapy.
And in the wellness community, integrative health practitioners recommend that you don’t just wait for crippling anxiety and depression to show up—you foster mental and emotional wellness on a daily basis, mindful of your body and nervous system’s potential to self-correct and reverse these conditions. I agree with committing to wellness as part of your lifestyle. The keys to wellness are:
–mindfulness (if you’re not paying attention, mood disorders, anxiety, anger, and sadness can creep up on you)
–a commitment to wellness
–an understanding that mind, body, and spirit approaches to wellness all have value
–an understanding that addressing wellness with many different modalities has a cumulative effect
–an understanding that medications don’t “fix” mood disturbances, and in some cases only work due to placebo effect, but that they can play a crucial role in mental wellness. Always, always consult a medical professional about significant anxiety and depression!
Regardless of how anxious or depressed you feel or don’t feel, there are many wellness techniques and modalities you can use for yourself or your child to foster emotional and mental wellness. Many are no cost and low cost. Many have research behind them. Those that don’t, and which I’m mentioning here, have little downside and are worth considering. Again, I’m not offering medical advice here but practical wellness techniques and modalities you might want to consider trying out and using regularly.
Lifestyle changes come about when you change your habits. It starts with a commitment and requires you to glue habits onto habits. If you always brush your teeth in the morning, glue a habit onto that habit. Get up 15 minutes earlier and go from the bathroom sink to a quiet room to meditate—or, as you pull the car in after driving home from work, stop and do some breathing techniques and say some positive affirmations.
Many of these techniques address anxiety through calming the fight-or-flight response. What is the fight-or-flight response? The brain's primitive, automatic response to PERCEIVED danger. The limbic brain in the back of the head triggers the response extremely quickly. Cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that give us energy to fight a foe or flee at top speed, are released into the bloodstream. The heart races, breathing becomes shallow, and blood is redirected from the prefrontal cortex where we are able to think clearly, plan, and control impulses and toward the limbic brain that is on red alert. If this response is triggered too often or too intensely, the limbic brain becomes overreactive. The idea is to train it to slow down and calm down so that it only hits the “red alert” button in situations that are truly dangerous.
I present these 15 practical ways to reduce and prevent anxiety and depression in no particular order. And I hope to write more on many of these topics in the future. Some of them I’ve written about more extensively in this blog, addressing parents of kids with sensory issues, so do check my previous posts if you get a chance.
So here we go!
1. Make use of nutritional interventions for anxiety and depression.
Medical schools require very little training in nutrition, and many physicians do not keep up with the latest nutritional research. They simply don’t have time! Check with your doctor about nutritional interventions, but also consider working with a nutritionist. Integrative health physicians Andrew Weil, Mehmet Oz, Christiane Northrup, and Joseph Mercola have many articles and books that incorporate information on the latest nutritional research. WWW.sciencedaily.com is a great place to look for recent research studies about nutrition as well as on anxiety and depression. Cure Your Child with Food by Kelly Dorfman, MS, LND, a nutrition detective who is an expert on sensory issues and nutrition, is a marvelous resource for information on how nutritional interventions can help your sensory child with anxiety and other issues.
Often, a nutritional deficiency is contributing to mood swings, anxiety, or depression. Vitamin D deficiencies are extremely common and are linked to depression. Supplementation with vitamin D3 may help. You should also check for low levels of vitamins B12 and folate, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, iron, and zinc. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has good info on this.
There’s evidence that St. John’s Wort is effective in treating depression.
Some nutritionists and naturopaths also recommend GABA and 5-HTP supplements so you may want to research those. Probiotics may be helpful, too. Psychology Today has a good article on these interventions.
Eating quality food, mostly vegetables, preferably organic, preferably locally grown, is something every doctor and nutritionist agrees on. Consider checking out a gluten-free diet, a Paleolithic diet, or a lowfat/whole grain diet (if you do the latter, definitely avoid GMOs as that may be a factor in problems digesting wheat and other gluten-containing grains). Get rid of processed foods, eat more good vegetables and fewer sugars. Remember that small changes make a big difference. You might commit to eating sautéed kale a few times a week now, or to drinking mostly water and unsweetened herbal teas. Don’t get overwhelmed by all the advice out there! Simple changes can make a big difference.
2. Get enough quality sleep.
Insufficient high quality sleep is linked to anxiety. Also, sleep hygiene, that is, regular practices for ensuring quality sleep may help. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help with poor sleep (perhaps because it’s effective for anxiety?) Some find craniosacral therapy highly effective for sleep disturbances, and many sensory kids find it calming. Quality sleep is as important as getting enough sleep!
And remember: sensory kids often really struggle with the transition to sleep and remaining asleep. The topic of sleep and sensory kids is covered extensively in the award-winning Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues.
3. Get therapy—particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be very effective for anxiety and insomnia, which are linked. CBT involves consciously reframing situations, which is effective for reducing anxiety.
In CBT, you learn about cognitive distortions. The idea is that as you catch yourself engaging in these hidden beliefs/thoughts that are distorted and negative, you consciously choose to replace them with less distorted, more positive beliefs.
4. Use affirmations and positive self-talk.
That said, many of our negative, distorted beliefs are buried in our subconscious and rise up automatically, especially when we’re upset. Making a habit of using affirmations can help you to replace these automatic beliefs with better ones. Even the Mayo Clinic agrees!
In fact, positive self-talk—“I am strong. I can do this!”—is used by the NAVY Seals, an elite team of warriors! The NAVY seals recognize that our limbic brain’s automatic fight-or-flight response can be powerful, and breathing techniques can slow it down.
5. Use mindful breathing techniques.
Breathing techniques for relaxation and stress-relief have been used for centuries in many spiritual traditions, and are used by licensed clinical psychologists to help their patients control the fight-or-flight response.
Here’s a video with a simple technique even kids can use.
Dr. Andrew Weil strongly recommends breathing exercises as well, and offers three breathing techniques on his website.
6. Be mindful! Use mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction.
In the past few years, there have been extraordinary breakthroughs on understanding what meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction do to the brain, mind, and emotional centers to alleviate anxiety and depression, foster optimism and self-awareness, and even improve memory.
Many forms of meditation are relaxing but mindfulness meditation (or Vipassana meditation) has been researched more than the others have, and it’s incredibly easy to do. One finding by researchers at Harvard is that 28 cumulative hours of mindfulness meditation—that’s 27 minutes a day, every day, for 8 weeks—changes structures in the brain to such a degree that you can actually see the changes on a brain scan. It shrinks the amygdala, which is part of the limbic brain and involved in the fight-or-flight response. It thickens the areas of the brain associated with optimism and a sense of possibility, self-awareness, and memory.
Mindfulness meditation affects the anterior cingulate cortex, the area associated with worry.
Even small children can learn to do mindfulness meditation! Check out this Facebook page, Teach Children Meditation Campaign.
You don’t have to “stop” your thoughts. You just have to stop giving them weight and chasing after them. You do NOT have to sit in, or have your hands in, a certain position. Here are super easy instructions for mindfulness meditation, from Buddhist psychologist Dr. Ronald Alexander, author of Wise Mind Open Mind. The meditation police won’t come to arrest you if you don’t meditate daily, but do aim to meditate regularly and practice mindfulness in everyday life. Pay attention to the sensations you experience as you eat, walk, do the dishes, and perform everyday tasks.
I have also benefitted greatly from doing reiki while mindfully meditating. Reiki is a form of energy medicine, and is similar to what’s called “the laying on of hands” but involves very little actual touch. The reiki practitioner works with the energy in your personal energy field. For what it’s worth, Dr. Oz recommends reiki; his wife is a reiki master who treats him and his family with reiki. Reiki is used in many hospitals. Here’s an explanation of reiki from Johns Hopkins Medical Center.
7. Use visualization techniques.
Visualization techniques work on the idea that the brain is easily fooled by our thoughts, and visual images have a powerful effect on how we perceive. They’ve been recommended by everyone from pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung as part of his active imagination technique, to New Age and New Thought teachers such as Louise Hay, to practitioners of neurolinguistic programming (NLP)—you can do a search on any of these to learn more.
You can do a guided visualization narrated by someone else or create one for yourself, imagining a positive experience. The more your senses and emotions are involved in creating the positive experience, the more powerful it will be. That said, if it’s a visualization that may make you encounter what’s hidden in the subconscious or unconscious, you may become upset by what you encounter. It’s a good idea to discuss those experiences with a therapist.
Here are some very positive guided visualizations for relaxation narrated by people with soothing voices:
Colette Baron-Reid relaxation meditation. (This one has a nonreligious, spiritual tone and mentions Spirit and angels.)
Relaxation meditation. (This one has a secular tone and is especially good for anxiety because of the reminder that you are in control and can end the meditation at any time)
8. Get moving!
Exercise is very important for treating depression because it boosts mood and results in changes in the brain that promote mental and emotional wellness. In fact, exercise seems to be as effective for mild to moderate depression as antidepressants are. But of course, if someone is too depressed to exercise, prescribing exercise isn’t going to cut it. They actually have to do it to receive the benefits.
9. Get out in nature!
The Victorians used to send people with “nervous problems” to sanitoriums, or “rest homes,” in natural areas such as woods until that fell out of fashion as talk therapy came into vogue. Research, particularly studies out of Japan and Europe, show we were too quick to dismiss the very real effect that being in nature—or around nature in limited ways, such as listening to natural sounds or having plants in a room or a view of trees and grass—has on our nervous system. Just 5 minutes in nature lowers levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Even recorded nature sounds are known to reduce stress.
An excellent book on this topic is Your Brain on Nature by by Eva M. Selhub, MD, and Alan C. Logan, ND.
10. Use sound and music.
The right sound and music can change your brainwaves and mood to foster relaxation and equanimity and reduce anxiety and depression.
Music therapy is highly effective for a reason: We are wired to respond and even alter our brain waves to music. Check out the book Healing at the Speed of Sound by Don Campbell and Alex Doman. It’s a great read and full of fascinating info on music and sound and health. I suggest getting the enhanced eBook version so you can click through to the auditory files.
11. Use cinematherapy.
When my cousin Bev West and I began writing our Cinematherapy book series, we didn’t know that cinematherapy is a legitimate therapeutic modality used by licensed clinical psychologists. We just knew that movies are a great way to address your emotions, explore them, and shift your mood.
To get in touch with grief and sadness, have a good cry, and feel better afterward, watch a “tearjerker,” particularly one with an uplifting ending. One of my favorites is The Joy Luck Club. To laugh and create endorphins that actually contribute to better health and lower cellular inflammation, watch a comedy that makes you laugh so hard your face hurts afterward. You can watch something slapstick, like an old Marx Brothers movie, or something absurd, like a Monty Python movie, or anything else that strikes YOU as funny. I would suggest being cautious about cynical humor as that can reinforce distorted beliefs that support depression and anxiety. Go for movies that make you feel empowered, strong, and able to handle life’s stressors.
Cinematherapy also involves using movies to explore your issues. Choose movies that speak to what you’re going through. One of my favorite movies about anxiety is Defending Your Life with Albert Brooks. Another is the Pixar kids’ movie Finding Nemo—Brooks plays Nemo’s father. Even adults can enjoy this one! When I think of someone who understands anxiety and laughs about it, I think of Albert Brooks!
12. Get together with friends.
Research shows social support is crucial for physical and emotional health. Dr. Christiane Northrup says, “Community is immunity.”
Be careful about spending time with people who encourage pessimistic and negative beliefs and perceptions. You want to support others but you don’t want to become depressed or anxious as a result of giving too much and receiving too little. Be mindful of your mood and regularly replenish yourself with self-nurturing activities that foster positive emotions and attitudes.
Then too, online support groups as well as in-person ones can be a great place to make new friends and find other parents who will reassure you that you’ll be okay and so will your sensory child. For me, these types of support groups were a lifesaver back when my son’s sensory issues were at their worst. Check the SPD Foundation website for in-person support group contact info. There are many online support groups for parents of kids with sensory issues at yahoogroups.
13. Reconnect with and nurture your body.
Many of us are disconnected from our bodies and what feels good in our bodies. Take a few minutes to create a list of what makes you feel good in your body. Make a point of adding those activities back into your life. Make exercise enjoyable so you’re more motivated to do it. Dance, play Frisbee golf, walk and talk with friends to catch up, go swimming—whatever it is that makes you feel good.
It’s especially important for people who have become sexually traumatized to reconnect with their bodies. Work with a therapist who can help you reconnect with your physical self. Even teenagers have sexual selves. If you’re a parent of a teen, don’t ignore this aspect of your son or daughter’s life. Think about what messages you want to send to your teen about having a healthy relationship with one’s body and sexuality. If it’s hard to broach the subject or have the conversation you want to have, get assistance so that you can do what you need to do. Use “teachable moments” when sexual topics come up in movies, music, and television shows. Your son or daughter needs your guidance to counteract the unhealthy messages out there.
14. Do yoga.
Yoga is especially helpful for anxiety and depression. It combines movement and mindfulness.
15. Reconnect with your spirituality.
Spirituality and religion are two different things that can overlap. This is a new concept for many people. Spirituality is your feeling of connection to something larger than yourself, that was here before you came along and will be here long after. When you connect with that awareness, you don’t feel small and inconsequential. You actually feel empowered—even though that may seem like a paradox. You’re part of something huge and wonderful, but you’re still important? Yes! When you experience that awareness, you feel motivated to do something, using your own gifts and resources and wisdom, to make that larger whole even better. Some reconnect through their spirituality through community or nature, some through religion and religious practice and being part of a religious community—and some find other ways to connect.
Research shows the value of faith, religious participation, religious practice, and community participation: All contribute to well-being. It’s not for me to tell you how to reconnect with your spirituality—but I encourage you to consider doing it whether you’re deeply religious, spiritual but not religious, or an avowed atheist. Pray, meditate, spend time in nature feeling your connection to the natural world, go to a nursing home and cheer up the patients by singing and performing uplifting music whether it’s folk songs or gospel songs, read spiritual and/or religious books, go on a spiritual retreat, join or create a spiritual community—the possibilities are endless. Don’t overlook this valuable tool for wellness: spirituality!
If you combine techniques and modalities, you may get even better results: for example, if you use a mindfulness-based movement modality that incorporates mindful breathing, such as yoga, tai chi, or qigong. If you do these activities outdoors, you’re getting the benefits of being in nature, too.
If you’d like more helpful information about helping your child with sensory issues, and reducing the sensory stressors that can cause anxiety, do check out the award-winning Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues by Lindsey Biel OTR/L and Nancy Peske (with a foreword by Temple Grandin).
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