6 Simple Rules: helping yourself to a happier life

There’s been a lot of talk about depression lately. The shorter days and longer nights of winter are notorious for bringing out the big black dog in many people, but as we’re learning, there is a lot more to anxiety and depression than just feeling a bit blue when it gets cold.

The recent tragic suicides of rock star superchef Anthony Bourdain, and successful handbag designer Kate Spade, have served to highlight a really important factor: mental health isn’t just a problem for the ‘broken’ few that we prefer not to think about; it’s a real, tangible torture that a lot of people are struggling with. Anthony and Kate’s deaths have shown categorically that you don’t have to be broke, or a loser, or unpopular, or ‘weird’ to feel really, really low, depressed, anxious and hopeless. It can, and does happen to a huge proportion of us.

It’s taking a while, but slowly we are realising that how our brains work, and how our hormones affect us, are no more taboo or different to breaking a leg, or getting the flu. It’s simply how we work. Sometimes we can feel better by talking to a friend, getting a cuddle from our favourite people or simply sleeping on it. Other times, it may need a little extra help, whether it’s seeing your doctor to look at options that could work for you, or talking to a counsellor or professional.

It’s important to note this list isn’t a cure-all – if you’re fighting hard and not winning, please try to find someone who can help you. Also, if you haven’t heard from a friend in a while, or you’ve noticed something’s not quite right with them – don’t wait. Go and check on them. Sometimes it’s hard to ask.

But in the meantime, there are some simple things we can all do which have been proven to make us feel a little better. Even if you can only find your way to doing one of them today, give it a try. Then another one tomorrow. It’ll be OK. You’ve got this.

6 Simple Rules: find your happy

  • Drink loads of water.
    85% of our brain tissue is made up of water. Depression has been linked to a lack of serotonin, a neurotransmitter which helps determine our mood. The amino acid tryptophan, which we eat (see next Rule) is converted into serotonin in our brain, and the tryptophan is carried from blood to brain with water. Dehydration limits the amount of tryptophan that can be carried into the brain, therefore it makes less serotonin, therefore our serotonin level drops.
  • Eat foods rich in tryptophan.
    Tryptophan is naturally found in animal and plant proteins, and it’s an essential amino acid for us; however our body can’t make it. Eating foods rich in tryptophan has been strongly shown to help with depression for the reasons listed above: tryptophan helps make serotonin, which dictates our mood.
    The good news is that tryptophan is found in most protein-based foods. Foods high in tryptophan include; kale, spinach, garlic, blueberries, chocolate (YES!), oats, cottage cheese, pumpkin seeds, red meat, poultry, eggs, beans and fish.
    For a really delicious wintry dish that’s cheap, easy and stuffed full of tryptophan, try my Black Bean & Feta-stuffed Pumpkin. Yum!
  • Get outside in the morning.
    If you’re feeling miserable, the last thing you’ll feel like doing is hitting the gym and going for 500 situps. So don’t. It’s been well documented that physical activity releases endorphins, aka the ‘feelgood’ chemicals in our brain. So combine that with something you love. A walk on the beach, taking the dog out (or a neighbour’s dog – they’ll love you for it!), meeting up with mates for a kick-around, going for a swim, getting out into the woods, taking the kids on a treasure hunt, getting on your bike, doing some gardening – anything that gets you outside will work. Getting outside in the morning is even better – the fresh air on your skin will give you a boost you simply won’t get by staying indoors.
  • Eat right.
    A common theme for people who are struggling with depression is unhelpful food choices. Yes, you could go home and get a salad – but there’s a burger joint with your name on it. Bananas and veggies? Yeah, sure, that would be fine, if I didn’t really want fried chicken right now.
    Sound familiar? It’s an easy habit to get into, and not an easy one to break, but you can help yourself here. Of the foods that are good for you, which ones do you like? Keep them handy. A tin of tuna, sachet of instant oats or even a small bar of dark chocolate in your drawer is an easy way of making sure that when you’re hungry, you have a good option on hand. Once you’ve eaten it, that slimy fast food option won’t look so good. Remember that Jamie Oliver video about the pink slime that goes into chicken nuggets? Yeah, that’s not going to make you feel better if you eat it.
  • Think about your drinks.
    Another self-medicator that isn’t helping. I put my hand up for this one – it feels remarkably like a reward at the end of a crappy day to pour a glass of wine. Takes the edge off the events of the day, and cooking dinner with a glass of wine next to me feels pretty normal. And everything’s hunky dory, until one glass is a lot more than one glass, and suddenly it’s a rather sad party for one, that culminates in a bad night’s sleep, not feeling great the next morning, and often even another stick for me to prod myself with – why did I do that? Idiot.
    When you’re feeling miserable, alcohol isn’t going to help. Even aside from the damage more than moderate drinking can cause, there’s something very depressing about waking up the next morning and knowing you had no self-control. When was the last time you woke up feeling fab after a night on the wines?
  • Sleep tight.
    As my friend used to say to me when I had a sleepless newborn, “There’s a good reason sleep deprivation is used as torture”. Lack of sleep, even over the short term, can really chip away at your mood, leaving you with no energy, and feeling anxious and miserable.
    The link between sleep and mood has been researched to death, and the results are always the same. It’s been proven that people with insomnia have greater levels of depression and anxiety than those who sleep normally. They are 10 times as likely to have clinical depression and 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety. The more a person experiences insomnia and the more frequently they wake at night as a result, the higher the chances of developing depression. (www.sleepfoundation.org)
    If you’re struggling to sleep, help yourself by cutting down on caffeine and alcohol at least 5 hours before bedtime, limit screen time, and try a warm bath or mug of hot milk before bed. If sleeplessness continues, talk to your doctor to find some answers.

I came across a post this week from an anonymous writer that’s going viral. In it, the writer explains depression so beautifully, and so concisely, people who have suffered, or are suffering, are trying to share the message in the hope that others can understand.

No one needs to be alone.


“Now Anthony Bourdain.

When you have depression it’s like it snows every day.

Some days it’s only a couple of inches. It’s a pain in the a**, but you still make it to work, the grocery store. Sure, maybe you skip the gym or your friend’s birthday party, but it IS still snowing and who knows how bad it might get tonight. Probably better to just head home.

Your friend notices, but probably just thinks you are flaky now, or kind of an a**hole.

Food writer Anthony Bourdain tragically took his own life over the weekend.

Some days it snows a foot. You spend an hour shovelling out your driveway and are late to work. Your back and hands hurt from shovelling. You leave early because it’s really coming down out there. Your boss notices.

Some days it snows four feet. You shovel all morning but your street never gets ploughed.

You are not making it to work, or anywhere else for that matter. You are so sore and tired you just get back in the bed. By the time you wake up, all your shovelling has filled back in with snow. Looks like your phone rang; people are wondering where you are.

You don’t feel like calling them back, too tired from all the shovelling. Plus they don’t get this much snow at their house so they don’t understand why you’re still stuck at home. They just think you’re lazy or weak, although they rarely come out and say it.

Some weeks it’s a full-blown blizzard. When you open your door, it’s to a wall of snow. The power flickers, then goes out. It’s too cold to sit in the living room anymore, so you get back into bed with all your clothes on. The stove and microwave won’t work so you eat a cold Pop Tart and call that dinner. You haven’t taken a shower in three days, but how could you at this point? You’re too cold to do anything except sleep.

Sometimes people get snowed in for the winter. The cold seeps in. No communication in or out. The food runs out. What can you even do, tunnel out of a forty foot snow bank with your hands? How far away is help? Can you even get there in a blizzard? If you do, can they even help you at this point? Maybe it’s death to stay here, but it’s death to go out there too.

The thing is, when it snows all the time, you get worn all the way down. You get tired of being cold. You get tired of hurting all the time from shovelling, but if you don’t shovel on the light days, it builds up to something unmanageable on the heavy days. You resent the hell out of the snow, but it doesn’t care, it’s just a blind chemistry, an act of nature. It carries on regardless, unconcerned and unaware if it buries you or the whole world.

Also, the snow builds up in other areas, places you can’t shovel, sometimes places you can’t even see. Maybe it’s on the roof. Maybe it’s on the mountain behind the house. Sometimes, there’s an avalanche that blows the house right off its foundation and takes you with it. A veritable Act of God, nothing can be done. The neighbours say it’s a shame and they can’t understand it; he was doing so well with his shovelling.

I don’t know how it went down for Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade. It seems like they got hit by the avalanche, but it could’ve been the long, slow winter. Maybe they were keeping up with their shovelling. Maybe they weren’t. Sometimes, shovelling isn’t enough anyway. It’s hard to tell from the outside, but it’s important to understand what it’s like from the inside.

I firmly believe that understanding and compassion have to be the base of effective action. It’s important to understand what depression is, how it feels, what it’s like to live with it, so you can help people both on an individual basis and a policy basis. I’m not putting heavy sh*t out here to make your Friday morning suck. I know it feels gross to read it, and realistically it can be unpleasant to be around it, that’s why people pull away.

I don’t have a message for people with depression like “keep shovelling”. It’s asinine. Of course you’re going to keep shovelling the best you can, until you physically can’t, because who wants to freeze to death inside their own house? We know what the stakes are. My message is to everyone else. Grab a f***ing shovel and help your neighbour. Slap a mini snow plow on the front of your truck and plough your neighbourhood. Petition the city council to buy more salt trucks, so to speak.

Depression is blind chemistry and physics, like snow. And like the weather, it is a mindless process, powerful and unpredictable with great potential for harm. But like climate change, that doesn’t mean we are helpless. If we want to stop losing so many people to this disease, it will require action at every level.”

— Anonymous