Mark Manson thinks there’s a looming mental health crisis on the horizon.
“Nothing has all of the ingredients for the emotional breakdown recipe quite like a pandemic-induced global shutdown. Lack of face-to-face socializing and general social isolation? Check. Financial uncertainty and mass unemployment? Check. Lack of regular exercise, sunlight, and access to basic necessities? Check. High uncertainty of one’s safety and security in the near future? Check. Tons of free-time to refresh news feeds five thousand times per day? Double check.
But let’s be honest with ourselves: the next few months are going to be really rough on everyone’s mental health. And we need to be prepared for it.”
Which begs the question: What’s the best way to deal with Coronavirus-induced depression?
For the past two years, I’ve been developing, implementing, and refining a mindfulness-based approach to overcoming depression.
It’s a layered approach, based on the understanding that depression is the normal response of our mood system to the evolutionarily abnormal conditions of modern life.
We evolved to live in close contact with dozens of other humans on African savannas. Our instincts and emotional systems — our Elephants — are attuned to the needs of bands and tribes, not isolated individuals in urban environments.
Jonathan Rottenberg, psychologist, and author of The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, put it this way:
“Depression is a legacy of evolution that serves to shut down motivation. Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals. They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing.”
Every indicator of increased depression risk Mark Manson identified is brought about by our fundamental mismatch problem: we are not designed to live the kind of lives we’re currently living.
Even though he started out with a traditional perspective on the problem, Johann Hari came to the same conclusion in his book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions:
“The primary cause of all this rising depression and anxiety is not in our heads. It is, I discovered, largely in the world, and in the way we are living in it… What if depression is, in fact, a form of grief — for our own lives not being lived as they should?”
The result of living out of alignment with our environment is that depression is already an epidemic, and this pandemic is only going to increase its impact.
What can we do?
We can work on mimicking in our modern lives the kinds of conditions that prevailed in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness. If that sounds daunting, or even impossible, I’ve simplified it down to six factors.
We have to work on staying AL(i)VE^2. It stands for:
- Love and Belonging
- A Plant-Based d(i)et
- Very Good Sleep
Each of the first five factors has been independently shown to reduce rates of depression. I added the 6th factor when I noticed how much my financial prospects impacted my mood.
Taken together, the AL(i)VE^2 factors provide a framework for living a depression-resilient life.
Let’s look at each in turn.
Part of our problem is that we’re meta-cognitive beings. We’re aware that we’re aware. And because we can be aware of our thoughts, we can, by mistake, think our way into the pit of despair.
By focusing exclusively on what’s wrong with our lives, or worse, what we think is wrong with ourselves, we can convince our mood system that there’s no hope. And once your mood system loses confidence in you… No good comes of that.
So it behooves us to take sensible precautions.
The first step in awareness is simply to become mindful of our mood. What are we feeling now?
Using the dominant framework for understanding emotions from academia, I created The Moods Poster. I surveyed thousands of people about how energetic and pleasant they found hundreds of moods to be and selected 144 of them for the poster.
At the top of this landscape of emotions are high energy moods. Towards the bottom are low energy moods. On the left are unpleasant moods. On the right are pleasants ones. The further away from the center of the 2×2 matrix you get, the more extreme the emotion.
By asking yourself two simple questions —
- How energetic is this mood?
- How pleasant is this mood?
— you can begin to enhance your emotional intelligence.
The second step of awareness is to manage our moods by managing our attention. Since bad is stronger than good, we have to go good hunting.
A proven way to do that when it comes to depression is a technique Martin Seligman calls “three good things.” If you write about three good things that happened to you today, and why they happened to you, you will lower your rates of depression and increase your felt well-being for months to come.
For my upcoming book, The Good Moments: a journal for overcoming depression and creating lasting happiness, I’ve adapted Seligman’s practice, as you can see below.
The “that happened because” part of the practice is as essential as the good moment itself.
One of the worst aspects of deep depression is the sense of hopelessness it entails. Seligman calls it a disease of the future because it’s the belief that life sucks, and it’s never going to get better.
By consistently articulating why a good moment happened in my life, I’ve come to understand just how much agency I have. And how much cause and effect there is between an action today and an opportunity for happiness tomorrow.
The third step of awareness is about making sure you’re not lost in rumination about the past or worry about the future. Are you here now?
Any time you wake up to the fact that you’re lost in thought is a good moment.
2. Love and Belonging
Let’s look at love and belonging at three levels: I, WE, and IT: self-love, social love, and universal belonging.
Part of overcoming depression is finding out where you belong in each of these areas. Let’s take them in reverse order, start with the IT level of love and belonging. These are the things we can’t control, but to which we know we belong when we see them.
Take JK Rowling, for instance.
She was a divorced single mother, as poor as you can be in modern Britain without being homeless, the biggest failure of all her friends. And what did she decide to do? She decided that writing novels was going to be her path out of poverty.
Pause and let that sink in.
Her strategy for getting out of poverty was the write novels. Novels! Sounds insane, no?
And yet, in her stop-what-you’re-doing-and-watch-this commencement speech at Harvard, she said:
“Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.”
She belonged to books.
After decades of self-denial, self-deception, and self-rejection, I’ve concluded that I, too, belong to books. It was at my most despairing, hopeless, and suicidal moment that I took inspiration from Rowling. I thought, The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is to write books. What else do I have to lose? Only my life. I’m going to kill myself anyway, so I might as well try.
That’s how I decided to write The Mindful Life Journal. I was going to publish my first book or die in the process.
I was that desperate.
Once I decided I belonged to books, good things started to happen. People volunteer to help me. People donated money to me to cover my living expenses as I created the journal. People talked me down from the ledge when I got suicidal along the path to publication. And when I published the journal, it went to #1 as a new release on Amazon. Sales of the journal have been funding my life for two years.
When I have veered away towards the near neighbors of Internet marketing and e-commerce after publishing the journal, things haven’t worked as well.
I’m back on the books path.
This article is essentially the shitty first draft of what will become the introduction of The Good Moments.
This author website is my new home, where I can document my journey and test out ideas on route to writing new books.
Having found belonging on the IT level, it’s easier to find belonging on the communal level. Other authors are my kind of people. I enjoy talking to them. I enjoy learning more about the publishing business. It’s a better fit for me than the MBA community or the corporate community. I don’t speak B2B. I speak B2C.
The sense that I’m on the right path for me at a universal level and the positive feedback I receive when I walk that path help me feel better about myself. It helps to address my core wound, my sense of worthlessness, my sense of being ill-fit for this world.
Those beliefs run deep, and they’re not “fixed” completely. But I’m on my way. I love myself so much more than I did even a few years ago. Just being able to write that sentence is something of a miracle, really.
There are other aspects of love and belonging that would make my life better, for sure. I would love to be in an intimate relationship. But that will come when it comes. For now, I focus my efforts on reinforcing my sense of belonging to the work I love, the peer-group I enjoy, and this slow and continuous self-healing process.
When you measure the degree of love you have in your life, it helps to keep these three levels of belonging in mind and to actively work to find your unique fit in this [email protected]#$ing capitalist world.
3. A Plant-Based D(i)et
One of the greatest acts of self-love you can do is to eat the healthiest human diet. To eat the way our ancestors ate for hundreds of thousands and millions of years. That is, to eat plants.
Yeah, yeah, we’re omnivores, and we can survive on pretty much anything. But what if your goal was not merely to survive but to thrive?
What if your goal was to eat in a way that denied diabetes the opportunity to enter your life?
What if you wanted to kill cancerous cells as you consumed calories?
What if you wanted to eat as if you actually cared for your heart?
What if you wanted to eat like your life depends on it?
What would you eat?
Fortunately, better minds than mine have asked and answered this question. Everything I’m about to tell you comes from two books by Dr. Michael Greger, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease and How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss, and by inference, the thousands of scientific articles he cites.
Food and nutrition are seriously partisan sports. I am no expert. What I’m saying is that I’ve chosen my team and my team is the plant-based, whole foods team. Here’s why I think you should join the plant-based team, especially if you are given to depression.
Your biggest exposure to the outside world is not your skin or your lungs; it’s your intestines.
You have a 2,000 square foot house inside you. How do you want to furnish it? Why not live in a lush garden?
By feeding the Elephant the healthiest human diet (based on the balance of current scientific evidence), you’re signaling your mood system that you care about your life that you respect yourself. That you, as the Rider, have the best interests of this body in mind.
By taking control of what you eat, you exercise agency. It’s an important step towards overcoming the life-sucking, dread-producing, can’t-see-a-way-forward feeling of hopelessness.
In a world where cause and effect are increasingly separated in space and time, food allows us to observe cause and effect closely matched in space and time. In our own lives. In a visceral way.
When I went cold-turkey on the Standard American Diet (SAD is only too apt an acronym), within weeks, I lost 30 pounds, had more energy, and developed an entirely new taste pallet. Two years into my plant-only practice, I’m still 30 pounds lighter despite adding a fair amount of muscle (see the exercise section).
My experience isn’t unique.
In one so-called A-B-A study women were asked to eat plant-based foods for a few months to see how it affected their menstrual cycles, and then to switch back to their baseline diet, to note the contrast. The problem — at least for the researchers — is that many of the women refused to go back to baseline. They were losing weight without any calorie counting or portion control, they had more energy, their periods got better, and they experienced better digestion and better sleep.
But beyond the sense of agency and well-being that eating unprocessed plants brings, it also decreases the odds we’ll get depressed.
Research shows that those eating plant-rich diets have lower rates of depression. A study out of Taiwan found that higher consumption of vegetables may reduce the odds of developing depression by as much as 62%.
People eating plant-based diets experience significantly fewer negative emotions and report more vigor than omnivores. When you take away eggs and meat from meat-eaters, you see significant improvements in mood states in just two weeks.
The strange-but-true findings are endlessly fascinating. Eating butternut squash seeds can lower your anxiety as can sniffing saffron. Drinking hibiscus tea can lower your blood pressure (high blood pressure is a common side effect of depression) as well as the leading medication.
It turns out that there are two types of gut bacteria. One bacterial ecosystem is oriented around processing animals, and the other is organized around processing plants. When you go entirely plant-based, the bacteria in your intestinal tract swap out, and your taste buds follow suit.
I grew up on bread and butter. But butter has become revolting to me. When I mistakenly ingest it, it drives me insane. The sludgy animal aftertaste takes hours to eliminate. It’s like an oil slick in my mouth. I think, how could I have ever have thought this malignant substance was delicious? Madness.
Whether you want to give up butter or not… given all the potential upside associated with eating unprocessed plants, wouldn’t now be a good time to take on one of the 21-day plant-based diet challenges?
4. Very Good Sleep
Another area of your life in which you can exercise control is sleep.
The stats are unsettling. Thirty million Americans have insomnia, while sixteen million suffer from depression. They’re related in that our moods are lower after even one night of sleep deprivation.
I guess it’s no surprise that studies show that getting proper rest reduces rates of depression.
Yale psychology Laurie Santos offers some advice in her Coursera course on The Science of Well-Being. She suggests:
So pick four nights this week, note them in your calendar, and get ready to get some much-needed sleep. Also, be sure to practice good sleep hygiene too — no devices before bed and try to avoid caffeine and alcohol on the days you’re getting your sleep on. Each morning, be sure to log your amount of sleep in the tracking method you’ve been using. Make sure you get four nights of 7+ hours over the course of the week.
Sleep, she says, is “a totally free and super-easy way to boost your mood and your health.”
While my sleep isn’t perfect — I’m in a “first sleep / second sleep” pattern these days; I wake up around 3am for an hour or two before falling back asleep — it’s better than it was. I’m no longer waking up to find my teeth grinding, worrying about chipping my bottom teeth. When I was deep in depression, my body-mind was reacting as if I was in mortal peril. Which I was, I suppose. At peril from myself.
(Middle-aged white men are the most at-risk population when it comes to suicidal depression.)
When I wake up in the middle of the night, I’ll pick a dharma talk to listen to from one of the teachers on Dharmaseed. If I’m in a heady, intellectual mood, I’ll deepen my understanding of early Buddhism by listening to Stephen Batchelor, Jill Shepherd, or Ajahn Sumedho. If I want something softer and more soothing, I go for something by Martine Batchelor, Tara Brach, or Mark Nunberg.
If I’m not up for a dharma talk, I put on Spotify’s sleep playlist.
One thing I would like to get better at is cultivating gratitude before bed, as the science shows it helps us sleep better.
One thing I have gotten better at is exercise.
My goal when it comes to exercise is to get the maximum benefit with the minimum risk of injury. (As I age, what the Buddha said becomes more and more evident to me: none of us can avoid aging, sickness, or death.) I don’t use any accessories. I’m a body-weight only kind of guy. I focus on three things: walking, yoga-fitness-ing, and swimming.
We’re bipedal for a reason. We’re designed to walk. And lo and behold, research shows that if you walk for just 30 minutes 3 times a week, you will reduce your depression.
Brisk walking (late for the bus style) will get your pulse up in the aerobic range, which is what you want, according to Dr. Dean Ornish. Brisk walking has been tested head to head against Zoloft twice, and in the long-term, it won.
When you exercise, your body releases endorphins that help you feel good, even euphoric. But you don’t have to do a marathon to get a runner’s high, all you have to do is take a stroll in nature (assuming you can, given your lockdown conditions).
In nature, you can connect with something bigger than your ego, feel overwhelmed by its greatness, and see yourself as part of a larger whole. Awe helps you accommodate the new. When we feel small relative to nature, we diminish the sense of our own importance and seek to adapt to our changing environment.
Another way to adapt your exercise routine to your self- or government-imposed isolation is by doing body-based yoga-style exercises at home. All you need is a towel to put on the floor to create a temporary sacred space.
Start by doing exercises designed to overcome another effect of being bipedal: back pain.
Two years ago, I started with this Youtube video. Over time I’ve added new things as my body has gotten stronger, such as plank positions and pushups. I’ve been doing 15-20 proper, thumbs-to-nipples, pushups four or five days a week for the past year. As a result, at age 47, I’m in the best shape of my adult life.
My third favorite form of exercise also has minimal risk of injury.
After moving to Bali, I added 30 minutes of swimming to the end of my day. It’s a fantastic way to let my brain rest and reconnect with my body.
The best exercise for you?
It’s is the one(s) you enjoy. Because if you like it, you’ll do it. If it’s fun, it’ll be sustainable. And if you don’t get injured, you don’t have to stop.
I tried running, but my shins kept splinting.
For the next week, try spending at least 30 minutes each day getting your body moving. Set aside a location and time (write it in your calendar!).
After I published The Mindful Life Journal, I spent six months diving into the literature on depression, which is how I came up with my ALIVE formula. At first, it only had five factors. But over time, I noticed how much my financial prospects impacted my mood. So I added economics as another “E”.
For better or worse, money has become a prominent proxy for evolutionary fitness. It affects not only our ability to meet our survival needs but to influences our social status. And it turns out that the more reliable our income, the more relaxed our mood system.
As insane as it sounds, if you receive a regular income from a property you own, you are 10-times(!) less likely to develop an anxiety disorder than if you don’t get any income from the property you own. People who have passive income take fewer mood-altering drugs.
All the way back in 1978, George Brown and Tirril Harris established the relationship between economic health and mental health. In the Social Origins of Depression, they say that “clinical depression is an understandable response to adversity.”
People with an income below $20,000 in America are twice as likely to become depressed as people who make $70,000 or more.
Because people in poverty face more long-term stress, experience more negative life events, and had fewer stabilizers.
Unemployment in America has skyrocketed in the past few weeks, which will have dire effects on our well-being. Unemployment reduces an individuals’ life satisfaction by 20% –- and it is hard to recover from this drop. This psychological scarring can even remain after getting another job.
According to Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, the Director of the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford, “research also shows that loss in income from being made redundant only accounts for about half of the big drop in life satisfaction. The rest is due to losing part of your identity, a routine throughout the day, and a social network.”
Creating income in a self-loving way that supports your identity and your aspirations for your time in human form is a hard problem to solve.
I wish I had an easy solution to suggest, but I don’t. From my own experience, it’s requiring me to overhaul my whole life and developing the skills I need to make a location and employer independent income.
It’s hard for an old dog to learn new tricks, but I’m doing my best.
Having unplugged from the Matrix later in life, I’m working to transform my pain into tools you can use. That’s what all my mindfulness-based self-help is about.
If you have suggestions on how I might better do that, please reach out.
In the meantime…
May you be peaceful.
May you be healthy.
May you live with ease.