Three words: sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
I guess I didn’t need a whole blog post for that after all. 🙂
But actually, I want to write about all three of these things in more detail, because…well, why? I don’t know, maybe for the memoir I’m not really writing? Maybe because I know these things in bits and pieces and I want to organize my own knowledge? Maybe because writing them reminds me of what I know and I am actively working on my own depression recovery right now. Maybe for the sake of whoever stumbles across this post and needs to know this exact thing.
So, sleep first.
Messed-up sleep and depression are a chicken-and-egg equation. Are you depressed because you’re not sleeping enough or are you not sleeping enough because you’re depressed? Or are you sleeping too much, and again, are you depressed because you’re sleeping all the time or sleeping all the time because you’re depressed? I suppose there might be a few people out there who know the definitive answer for their personal depression — I might actually be one of them* — but science doesn’t know the answer for the majority of us.
Sleep problems have been known as a symptom of depression for centuries. Literally, The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, covers sleep issues, suggests remedies, and quotes Ovid to demonstrate that the Greeks understood the connection between sleep and mental health, too. The author, Robert Burton, declares that sleep is “sometimes is a sufficient remedy of itself, without any other Physick.”
Meanwhile, some very solid longitudinal studies — the kind that last for decades and include hundreds or even thousands of people — have shown that insomnia predicts depression. When you don’t sleep, you’re increasing your odds of developing depression. No one in this century seems quite ready to say that insomnia causes depression, but the evidence that ongoing insomnia predicts a relapse of depression looks quite solid. Ditto the fact that treating sleep apnea with CPAP can also resolve depression symptoms. When you sleep better, you feel better.
It sounds so logical when you spell it out, right? Sleep is restorative, it rejuvenates us. We all know we can’t live without it, but we think of it in terms of a single day, a single night. Sure, I didn’t sleep well last night, so I’ll feel lousy today, but what happens when you don’t sleep well night after night after night? For me, at least, it becomes familiar. I stop noticing that I’m still tired in the morning. I start taking the way I feel for granted and I don’t look at the bigger picture of what that lack of sleep might be doing to my overall state of well-being.
I had a great therapist for a while who started every session by asking about my sleep. At the time, I was working full-time and home-schooling R, which I managed by staying up late and getting up early. I probably averaged about four or five hours of sleep a night. If you’d asked me if I was tired, I would have told you I was fine, I was used to not sleeping. At that point, I hadn’t slept for more than a couple hours in a row for close to a decade. Spoiler alert: I was not fine.
So, we’ve known for at least four hundred years that sleep can be a cure for melancholy, and yet, is focusing on your sleep the first thing that comes to mind when you’re depressed? Probably not. And if it is, how seriously do you really take it?
Here’s a question or three: how old is your mattress? How old are your pillows? How soft are your sheets? Is your sleeping situation really comfortable or is it just what you’re used to? If you’re waking up multiple times in the night, do you know why? What can you do to change it?
The internet has vast quantities of advice to improve your sleep: get on a consistent schedule; no electronic devices (television, computers, phones) in the bedroom; limit caffeine, alcohol and sugar; get plenty of physical exercise during the day; make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and a comfortable temperature; etc, etc.
Some of the suggestions are impractical for me: I live in a one room tiny house, so the electronic devices are staying in the room, and so is my dog. But I’ve stopped drinking tea after 8, and by 9PM, I’m dimming the lights in my room. At 10, the lights go off. Do I like this? Nope. I hate living on a schedule, using a clock to structure my life. But I also hate being depressed. And I know that consistent, regular, plentiful sleep is a starting place for recovery.
* You know how I said that depression and sleep are a chicken-and-egg equation? Writing this has made me realize that in my case, it might be the chicken that came first.
Last summer’s batch of chicks unfortunately included two roosters. They are beautiful birds. But we have, since August, been saying, “We’re going to have to do something.” The coop is too small for two roosters; the neighborhood is too residential for any roosters. And roosters crow ALL the time. Roosters who are fighting with one another are noisy all day long; roosters in general start crowing around 3AM and if they’re in the mood, they don’t stop. I told Suzanne recently that if a fox or raccoon got in the chicken coop now and the ladies started squawking, I probably wouldn’t even react; I’d just assume that the roosters (Ringo 1 & 2) were trying to kill one another.
So when I take a step back and look at my current depression, I’ve got to wonder whether spending three months with two crowing roosters approximately thirty feet away from my bed might have something to do with how I’m feeling. I couldn’t tell you the last time I slept through the night, but I bet it was when I was in Mexico.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to re-home a rooster. No one wants them. I think we’re pretty much reduced to figuring out how to kill them humanely or rather (vastly preferably!) how to find someone else to kill them humanely. Yesterday I was researching vets online, trying to figure out if anyone euthanizes roosters. Ans: not around here. I eat chicken — I ate chicken for breakfast! — so it’s not like I’m morally pure here. But I have just not been able to bring myself to actively take steps to kill a healthy animal that I’ve been chatting with for months. Ugh. The very thought is, ha, depressing.