Lifestyle strategies and stress management

While treating depression or another mental illness will generally require professional intervention, you’re the expert when it comes to self-care, the process of forming healthy habits and making positive changes to your daily routine to improve your emotional and physical health. Self-care includes reducing and managing your stress, maintaining a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise, and educating yourself about your illness. The more that you take an active role in helping yourself and make positive improvements in your lifestyle, the better your chances of feeling better and staying well. 

Here are some lifestyle strategies that can help you cope with depression and related illnesses and prevent recurrence:

Educate Yourself

One way to regain a sense of control when you are diagnosed with depression or a related illness is to educate yourself about your illness. You can do this by talking with your doctors, learning from others who have depression, and by reading books and articles about depression. The more you know about depression and its treatment, the better you will be able to manage your depression and understand which treatment options may be best for you.

Sleep well

Sleeping well directly affects your mental and physical health and your quality of life. Depression and related disorders can disrupt your sleep, so it’s important to establish a regular sleep pattern. Below are some recommendations for getting a good night’s sleep:

  • Stick to a schedule by trying to go to sleep and wake up around the same time each day. Use this sleep diary to help you track your sleep.
  • Don’t go to bed hungry or too full, which can lead to discomfort.
  • Avoid drinking caffeine after 4pm and try not to drink more than 2 cups of caffeinated drinks each day.
  • Leave at least 30 minutes before bedtime to relax and wind down.
  • Create a room that's ideal for sleeping by keeping your room cool, dark and quiet.
  • Try to resolve your worries or concerns before bedtime. Set aside time during the day for problem-solving or writing down thoughts.

Get active

Regular physical activity such as walking, running, or playing sports can improve your mood, distract you from worries, and relieve tension and stress. Exercise can also improve your general health. You’ll benefit most from regularly exercising for 30 minutes or more, but it’s okay to build up to it gradually. Below are some recommendations for getting started with a new exercise routine:

  • Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program.
  • Increase your activity levels over time in order to ease into the exercise routine and build your confidence.
  • Schedule some type of exercise each day, but allow for changes in your routine when something comes up.
  • Use this physical activity log to help you track your activity. 

Eat well

Experiencing anxiety or depression can make it difficult to eat well, but good nutrition is necessary for your mental well-being. Following some basic tips can boost your energy, mood, and overall wellness:

  • Learn to make simple meals that don't take too much time or energy to prepare. If you live on your own and aren't eating proper meals, consider using frozen or home-delivered dishes.
  • Use the times when you feel good to prepare meals ahead of time (e.g. if you have energy in the morning, make dinner then) or cook large quantities of food and freeze it.
  • Limit caffeine and sugar, which often lead to a crash in mood and energy.
  • Choose fresh over frozen foods as often as possible.
  • Eat lean meats and proteins such as fish, white-meat chicken, lean beef, eggs, beans, and nuts. 
  • Avoid foods with high levels of saturated fats.
  • Avoid highly processed foods as much as possible.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables in a variety of different colors. The different colors represent different kinds of nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy.
  • Use this daily food diary to help you track your eating so you can make improvements over time.

Avoid drugs and alcohol

People often turn to drugs or alcohol to relieve or manage feelings such as stress, sadness, or anger. However, substance use can worsen or trigger anxiety or depression and make it much harder to recover.

Reduce and manage your stress

Stress affects everyone from time to time and not all stress is harmful. However, high levels of stress over time can negatively affect your mental and physical health and may be a risk factor for depression or anxiety. People experience stress in different ways (e.g., headaches, trouble sleeping, anger, stomach aches, sadness). Stress management will help you deal more effectively with the stressors in your life. Here are some practical tips for reducing your stress:

  • Keep track of when you feel stressed and your response in a journal to better understand the source of your stress.
  • Create a list of ways to recharge and unwind. For instance, take a bath, read a book, listen to music, or watch a TV show you enjoy. Do at least one of these activities each day.
  • Take breaks from work or other structured activities. During breaks, spend time walking outdoors, listening to music or sitting quietly, to clear and calm your mind.
  • Seek the support of trusted friends and family or a mental health professional if you need to “vent” about situations that are bringing on stressful feelings.
  • If you have too much on your plate, eliminate unnecessary commitments and try not to take on new responsibilities in your professional or personal life. Try to find a healthy balance between work and other activities.
  • If possible, delay major life changes such as switching jobs or moving until you are feeling less stressed.
  • If something or someone is bothering you, communicate your concerns openly.
  • Adapt to stressful situations by changing your attitude and expectations. For instance, consider the big picture by asking how important a situation will be in the future. Consider accepting that it’s okay to not do everything perfectly!
  • Reflect on what you appreciate in your life to help you keep things in perspective. Try to view stressful situations from a more positive perspective. Instead of focusing on things that are out of your control, focus on what you can control, such as the way you choose to react to problems. Rather than getting upset about a long line, consider it an opportunity to slow down and reflect or call a friend.

References

Berk, M., Sarris, J., Coulson, C. E., & Jacka, F. N. (2013). Lifestyle management of unipolar depression. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 127(s443), 38-54.

Ravindran, A. V., Balneaves, L. G., Faulkner, G., Ortiz, A., McIntosh, D., Morehouse, R. L., ... & MacQueen, G. M. (2016). Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments (CANMAT) 2016 clinical guidelines for the management of adults with major depressive disorder: section 5. complementary and alternative medicine treatments. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 61(9), 576-587.

Sarris, J., O’Neil, A., Coulson, C. E., Schweitzer, I., & Berk, M. (2014). Lifestyle medicine for depression. BMC psychiatry, 14(1), 107.