Since I wrote my last post – Meditation, Medication, and Where I’ve Been – I’ve thought a lot about the things I do that affect my mood. In that piece, I was working through my own resistance to taking an anti-depressant because I felt that it was a false comfort, an artificial means of improving my experience of my life and the world. While taking a drug for depression may not be ideal (my Words with Friends winnings have dipped precipitously, for example), I now realize that anti-depressant medication really isn’t as different as I thought. There are in fact many things I take and do, pharmacologic and otherwise, that alter how I experience life day to day.
Take something I do every day: eat. Clearly the foods I eat affect how I feel. Dark chocolate, fatty fish, or dark-green leafy vegetables (though not necessarily all at once) have effects on the brain that make me feel better. (I once had a dentist who claimed eating a pound of spinach always cured his blues.) On the other hand, I associate chicken soup or my mother’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with intensely comforting feelings. Whether a food has an actual physiologic effect on the brain or brings about pleasant feelings – or a combination of these two – the result is the same.
In an attempt to address depression more “naturally,” I once experimented with dietary supplements such as St. John’s wort, SAMe, and fish oil. Though the effects of these substances can vary from source to source and person to person, they are biologically active compounds that affect the brain (often along the same pathways as anti-depressant drugs).
Exercise – running, walking, yoga, or my new passion Physique 57 – is perhaps the best non-pharmacologic approach to improving depression. Again, it is not totally clear whether the effects are predominantly physiological or a result of switching things up and, as Pema Chodron says, “doing something different.” It is likely a combination of these.
It bears mentioning that alcohol and drugs can be remarkably effective, at least in the short term, in making one feel better. I used to derive great relief and comfort from a glass (or three) of wine. However, in the best of cases, these positive effects didn’t last, and in the worst of cases, alcohol made my depression worse and led to dependence as more and more was needed to achieve the perception of pleasure.
Meditation, on the other hand, has improved my depression by changing how I relate to my thoughts and feelings. By taking the brave step to stay with feelings of depression, I have been able to develop curiosity about what is going on in my mind. I was ultimately able to discern what was depression – which I decided to treat with an anti-depressant for now – and what were judgments and anxieties about my depression.
Many other things – laughter, sex, getting a massage, listening to music, taking a vacation, spending time with animals or the people that make me feel good – enhance feelings of enjoyment and happiness and should not necessarily be thought of as that different from a little green capsule.
The day I published my last post, my blog had the highest number of hits ever in a single day. That tells me I hit a nerve. With so many of us experiencing depression, I hope we permit ourselves to do the things that make our lives better and loosen some of our harsh judgments about pharmacologic interventions for mood-related issues.