Feeling low? Got the blues? Touch of the black dog? Down? Depressed? Unhappy? We seem to have as many words for melancholia as the Inuit have for snow.
OK, so it’s not true about Inuit words for snow; but it is true about the rich and varied vocabulary we’ve developed to talk about how miserable we are, sometimes with rich and varied therapists.
According to the Office of National Statistics, one in five people in the UK has mild mental health issues. The highest levels are in people aged between 50 and 54, and women are more likely to succumb than men.
If you’re low right now, and I’m talking about feeling down rather than the despair that comes with deep-seated clinical depression (quite a different beast and one that does often need medical intervention), there are many easy steps you can take to beat the blues.
1 Eat right
Beware the three false gods: booze, caffeine and sugar. They are not your friends, no matter how much they pretend to be. They’ll pick you up, and then drop you from the high they’ve taken you to. Your true friends are water; selenium-rich foods such as eggs, brazil nuts and unrefined grains; proteins, including meat, fish, poultry, legumes and quinoa; and the all-round hero, the Mediterranean diet.
A study published some years back by University College London, which followed 3,500 people over five years, showed that those who followed a Mediterranean diet were 30 per cent less likely to become depressed than those who didn’t.
Laughter – even fake laughter – releases a surge of stress-busting endorphins into your bloodstream. Even of you don’t have anything to laugh about and remain immune to the best-worst of Basil Fawlty and David Brent, you can still have a go at faking it. Your mind will thank you for it, and so will your body, thanks to the boost in oxygen and the cardiovascular workout (yes really). If you’d like to do it as part of a group, join a laughter club. laughteryoga.org. There are hundreds nationwide.
3 Connect with other people
Dr Steve Ilardi, author of The Depression Cure, says that one of the most damaging aspects of depression is the fact that it makes us withdraw from others. According to him, our brains treat mental illness much as they would a physical one, urging us to retreat until we feel better, when what we really need when we’re low is company. So fight the impulse to switch off the phone and dive under the duvet and instead arrange to meet a friend.
4 Learn something new
If you’re in a rut, ploughing the same furrow will only take you deeper down that hole, so give your brain something new to think about. Learning a new skill, a new language, or even how to master all the functions on your smartphone can make you feel better about yourself and give you a sense of achievement.
Clinical psychologist Dr Linda Blair advocates learning to bake: “Baking is an antidote for the hectic approach we take to living. I would encourage anyone who is stressed or burnt out to start baking.” (Easy on the sugar, obviously; I refer you to point 1.)
But if baking’s not for you, the University of the Third Age, u3a.org.uk is a great place to start. It provides “life-enhancing opportunities” for retired and semi-retired people and operates on a local level, so there’s bound to be a group near you.
5 Give more love
Loving something or someone is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. If you don’t have a partner, and friends and children have moved away and you don’t know what to do with your love, find something you really enjoy doing. Or, even better, get a pet, or volunteer your time to someone who needs your care. Looking after someone or something will shift your focus and could lift you out of the doldrums.
The amazing Cinnamon Trust, cinnamon.org.uk matches volunteers with elderly or terminally ill pet owners who need help looking after their pets. You could have all the pleasure of walking someone else’s dog – and the accompanying health benefits – with none of the responsibilities of ownership.
6 Be active
Nothing slows down your brain’s recovery faster than slowing down your body. You don’t need to run or bootcamp or do anything more strenuous than walk, preferably every day (but failing that, at least five days a week). The NHS recommends 10,000 steps spread throughout each day. Walk It walkit.com is a city route planner that shows you the best way of getting from where you are to where you want to be, while tracking your calorie burn and step count. Walk 4 Life walk4life.info can help you find walks, and people to walk with.
7 Change your mind
Marcus Aurelius, the second century Roman Emperor, said: “The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it.” In other words, life is all about perception. We can’t change any of the awful things that happen to us, but what we can try to change is how we think of them.
Rewiring the brain in this way and accepting situations is hard work, but it can be done with practice and through meditation, which teaches people how to stop automatic thought processes. There are many excellent apps available to get you started, including Buddify (£3.99, buddify.com) and Headspace’s freebie starter app. headspace.com
8 Challenge yourself
Angela Padmore, author of Challenging Depression and Despair, argues that people are often too soft on themselves, and that they need to “get a grip”. This sounds harsh, but it needn’t be.
A brilliant clinical psychologist I know, Dr Mary Burgess at University College London Hospitals, taught me a very simple and effective trick to use whenever I’m wallowing or thinking destructive thoughts, which is this: I just ask myself “Is this helpful?”.
If the answer is no, as it invariably is, then I stop that thinking and move on to something else. Logic is a powerful tool. Use it to challenge your negative thoughts.