From feeling mildly out of sorts to being consistently laid low, there’s always something you can do to shift your mood and your energy. Kevin Braddock, author of Everything Begins with Asking for Help, shares a few of his favourite tricks to make every day a happier day
There's often little to separate perpetual low mood and persistent worry from what clinicians would diagnose as depression and anxiety – after all, being human often hurts. If you think something isn't working as it should in your internal system, your first step should always be to ask for help and book an appointment with your GP. However, some of the most effective tactics to recover from these common mental illnesses can be used by anyone, anywhere. Here are nine ways to give a lift to your mind and raise your spirits.
1. Start with the body
Depression and anxiety are typically experienced as dysfunctions in thinking and feeling: sombreness and spiralling thoughts. But increasingly these illnesses are recognised as being rooted in the body as much as the mind (if, indeed, there's a split between the two). Dr Tim Cantopher's persuasive book Depressive Illness: The Curse of The Strong makes this insight explicit, while US coach Tony Robbins puts it more simply: "The fastest way to change your psychology is through your physiology." Try the following to dissolve rumination into action:
- Dance for ten minutes
The good-mood hormone serotonin is often at its lowest first thing in the morning, but moving helps to lift one's functioning. Forget masochistic gym sessions: instead, get up, get dressed and get loose by turning on your sound system and playing whatever songs summon your inner beast. Dance, as they say, like nobody's watching, and keep going for ten minutes or three songs until you've got a mild sweat on or you no longer care how daft you look. As someone wise once said, the only way to dance badly is not to dance at all.
- Do a full body scan
"Focusing" was a technique devised in the late 20th century by the American therapist Eugene Gendlin as a way to help clients to locate a "felt sense" of their inner world: in simple terms, taking time to interpret what the foreign continent of the body is saying, while the mind itself interminably spools out its ticker tape of chatter. Practitioners of mindfulness do something similar with body-scan meditations, running a slow index of each body part from the toes to the head, locating which are tense and then allowing them to relax. Try a guided meditation from the pioneering Oxford academic Mark Williams.
- Take a cold shower
It's an unpopular suggestion for obvious reasons, and while the jury is out as to whether immersion in cold water can be an effective therapy for depression, plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests it can be: ask anyone converted to wild swimming and find out more about the approach developed by Dutch ice bather Wim Hof. Exposure to chilly water can be strikingly revitalising, raising the heart rate and stimulating the adrenal system. A way to instantly feel more alive, it may hurt a little, but it won't harm. There's more on the joy of outdoor swimming in Amy Liptrot's beautiful recovery memoir The Outrun.
2. Build helpful habits
We are what we do every day, so it's worth finding and committing to simple habits and hacks that can be practised every day:
- Go a pace slower
The commuter hordes surging at your ankles may feel a bit peeved if you relax your walking pace to a gentler tempo on the way into work. But scrutinising them more closely, you may also wonder why, exactly, everyone is always in such a terrific rush. Practices such as tai chi and yoga emphasise slowness and stillness as a way to centre oneself and calm the mind, but the simplest way of decelerating your own urgency is to learn to walk slower than the prevailing pace.
- Stay sober
It needn't be repeated that sobriety is a good match for mental health, or that habits easily can turn into dependency and addiction if left unchecked, particularly in such an addictive an era as ours. But if lifelong abstinence seems daunting or grimly joyless, short-term sobriety holidays can help build a more stable mood. Find out more about One Year No Beer's alcohol-free challenges or the "sober sprints" advocated by mindful drinking organisation, Club Soda.
- Call a friend
Surprisingly enough, smartphones can also be used to make telephone calls, and if you're out of the habit of ringing friends for a chat because you're too deep in social feeds, try this out: just call someone at random. A simple way to add genuine social contact into your day, it's also something deeper: speaking turns thoughts into air which is valuable if your own thoughts are rotating in an endless loop. Similarly, listening to others is a way to involve yourself in their lives which can have the effect of de-involving you in the labyrinth of your own mind. So, pick up the blower, find a number, and call: after all, the person on the other end may be feeling just as lonely as you are.
3. Then return to the mind
If your own thoughts seem too much or too stuck, look for other modes of thinking and experiencing – it turns out that history of is full of ideas from smart humans who have dealt with their own dark times.
- Do everything one day at a time
The one day at a time rule is a cornerstone of healthy living among those for whom staying sober isn't a lifestyle choice but a necessity, and it can transfer well to anyone who finds life difficult to deal with. Focusing on the day you’re in, and this day only, helps to bring perspective on the yawning infinity of time, especially when depression manifests as a preoccupation with the past, and anxiety and fear over the “what ifs” of the future. Considered one way, we are only ever in the moment and this mantra helps us stay there. For more on present-state awareness, read Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now.
- Read Marcus Aurelius
From the other end of history, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius cultivated a powerful response to the travails of life in his later writings, and while he wasn't the only Stoic philosopher (take a look at the writings of Seneca and Epictetus too), his Meditations are beautifully easy to read as well as deeply resolving. Stoicism has been undergoing a renewal of interest recently – sign up for The Daily Stoic’s email meditations – but Aurelius's thoughts on change, fortune, failure, despair, the self and others could easily have been written for our own era.
- Go to bed early
Your grandma knew that hope is a poor supper but a good breakfast, but maybe we need continual reminding that common sense is common because it's usually true. If you're given to troubling thoughts, it might be tempting to stay up late into the night trying to unravel the meaning of life, but both body and mind will reward you for good-quality sleep. Meanwhile, every morning is a chance to start practising over again: finding out what helps to soothe your head and doing more of it.