By Rachel Kelly
Whether you battle with depression or simply need the tools to deal with life’s everyday stresses, writer Rachel Kelly’s sanity-saving tips will help.
As someone who has suffered two breakdowns and battled with depression, you might wonder at my offering guidance on how to stay sane. But it is precisely because I have known the deep anguish of several depressive episodes that I have spent the best part of a decade devising strategies to keep well. I now believe I have my ‘black dog’ on a firm lead. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I have moments of despair, but I’ve never revisited the kind of severe depression that saw me hospitalised and considering suicide.
Recovery has required resilience and old-fashioned hard work – not to mention two psychiatrists, several GPs, three therapists and numerous psychological courses. But I’ve left no stone unturned in developing my own strategies, too. Why shouldn’t those susceptible to mental ill-health attempt to learn to look after themselves?
I routinely practise these guidelines, but never more so than when I feel that depression is returning. The first clue is insomnia – now I am alert should I have trouble dropping off, staying asleep or a tendency to wake early. The second is when instead of moving on from life’s vicissitudes, I begin to obsess. Such obsessive thoughts, if unchecked, can become catastrophic. And thirdly, physical signs appear: a racing heart, breathlessness and feeling sick. Then I know it’s time for my stay-sane tips.
1 Let’s start with breathing
You can’t breathe in the future or the past. You can only breathe now. Paying attention to your breathing is a brilliant way to root yourself in the present and to learn to take each moment as it comes. Depression is characterised by worry about the future and regret about the past. Anxiety tends to make your breathing shallow and fast, but by forcing yourself to inhale and exhale more slowly, your body is forced to calm down, and with it your anxious, racing mind, thus lowering the levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin.
Quick tip Put a finger over one of your nostrils. This will halve the speed at which you breathe. Pretend you’ve got a cold.
2 Cut out alcohol
After initially raising the levels of the neurotransmitters in our brain that tell us to feel happy, drinking depletes them. This is why our mood is low during a hangover. As I’m petite, I’ve always been cautious of alcohol as I become drunk and ridiculous easily!
3 Act generously
Acts of generosity, research has consistently shown, are linked to higher levels of mental wellbeing. Noble deeds make us more forgiving of others, and therefore more forgiving of ourselves (see tip 5). I’m lucky enough to do voluntary work at my local prison, and I always leave
4 Chemical reasons for depression are still vague
But we know it is related to an imbalance in brain chemistry. Psychiatrists on the whole don’t tend to recommend dietary changes, but my own experience is that switching from a typically English meat-and-two-veg diet to a Mediterranean one helps. When I eat more lean proteins, whole grains, pulses, fruit, fish, nuts, cereals and olive oil, and avoid sugar rushes, my mood is more stable. I’ve found this challenging; when low, the quickest pick-me-up is a chocolate digestive. Breakfasting well, combining protein and complex carbohydrates, is the best way to balance brain chemistry for the rest of the day. I alternate between porridge, poached eggs, oatcakes with goat’s cheese or sourdough toast with peanut butter. I also take a vitamin B supplement – those suffering from depression tend to have low levels.
5 Manage insomnia
The key to managing my insomnia has been to realise that it doesn’t matter if I don’t sleep, just so long as I don’t worry about it and become physically tense. I use techniques that have taught me to relax one muscle group at a time. It isn’t medically possible to stay awake for ever. My body will make sure I get the sleep I need, even if that sometimes means being flexible about catching up and napping at odd times.
6 Be compassionate
Develop a more compassionate, accepting inner voice, which you can call upon to counteract negative thinking. Healing mantras act as a balm for my hurt mind: ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9) and ‘You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here’ (Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata). I stick these excerpts on my bathroom mirror and use them as gentle reminders to carry on in moments of everyday adversity.
7 Learn to practise mindfulness
This involves nonjudgmentally focusing attention on what one is experiencing in the moment. My challenge has been incorporating this into everyday life. The answer has been to make an everyday activity a mindful one: I use hand-washing. I pay attention to the sensation of cold water, the sound of the tap, the smell of the soap. These mindful moments provide full stops amid the rush, and a reminder to slow down.
8 Try poetry
Poetry has proved to be a lifeline. It’s free, has no side effects and helps fill up the spaces otherwise occupied by my insistent worries. It helps with my insomnia (I can learn a poem in the middle of the night); makes me feel less alone (poets have become friends), and gives me words when I cannot find them. Take Love by George Herbert, with the opening lines, ‘Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back/Guilty of dust and sin.’ That’s what depression feels like to me: I’m guilty of ‘dust and sin’. But in the poem Herbert says to allow love to talk to you instead. Other top poems include Hope by Emily Dickinson and Invictus by William Ernest Henley for when I need courage.
9 Take exercise
Research shows that exercise can be as effective as some drugs. We all know about endorphin highs, but I’ve never been sporty and have a fear of gyms. I do, however, like getting things done and so love combining chores with exercise – both are less boring as a result. So I bicycle to pick up my son from school. I ring the gas company on speaker-phone while I sweep the back garden. I’ve also learnt that I shouldn’t do nothing just because it suits my inclination. Even a few stretches can help, or a short walk, especially outside – we all know the medical and psychological benefits of vitamin D and sunlight. Finally, I do a weekly dance class with a friend that I can’t easily get out of without letting her down.
10 This one is for you…
This is for you to come up with yourself. The worst thing about being depressed is people like me telling you what to do. It’s a bit like being a first-time mother when everyone tells you how to burp the baby. You know best. Make a list of your own top pointers. Print it out, make a few copies, laminate them and put them in strategic places – on the bathroom mirror, in your bag, or hidden inside your desk. And if one day you can’t get up, your mind is consumed by darkness and all hope is lost, be as gentle as you can on yourself. This too will pass.