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Depression: An illness

Yesterday I busied myself with googling some of my favourite authors to see if any new books were in the making (och, I’m a nerd, I know.) It was when I came to researching Marian Keyes (one of the most successful female writers to blossom from Ireland i.e. my guru) that I noticed the last information on Marian was May 2010; her last monthly newsletter that she submitted to her website.
However, reading this newsletter had me more than a little confused. In one sentence she was her usual hysterically witty and funny self where she writes, “Around February I started baking like a complete maniac... I’m the size of a house again: business as usual!” in contrast to the distressing revelations that were in the remainder of the newsletter: “I know I’ll be criticised for saying this [talking openly about her depression]... My brain is squirting out terrible, black, toxic chemicals that poison any good thoughts...Wave after wave of black agony has been rolling up from my gut and bursting in my head...when life is such a precious gift and many people desperately want to be alive and are denied it, but honestly, I’ve had no control of it.”
 I think what confused me most was that from an outsiders point of view Marian is one lady of good fortune. She is one of the world’s leading chick-lit writers who no doubt has no money troubles; has good relationships (as she talks fondly of her partner and her family) and is in good health (out with the depression of course.) Money, relationships and health tend to be the determining factors in how our general state of mind and well-being is. It got me thinking: what exactly is depression? Why does it affect so many people? (2 out of 3 people experience it at some time in life.) And ultimately, what can we do to stop it?

What is depression and who can get it?

The frightening answer is that any person can get depression. Depression that is triggered by life events may be easier to identify as it has an explanation of sorts - something that has prompted a decline in mood, such as bereavement, financial difficulty, illness or relationship troubles. Doctors can struggle to treat depression as it can be difficult to differentiate between depression: the illness and more commonly feeling stressed and ‘down.’
Many, like Marian, may experience depression without having any contributing life factors; meaning a chemical imbalance in the brain could be the more likely cause. ‘Serotonin’ and the ‘5-HT system’ are the two talked about chemical imbalances in regards to depression, as well as stress hormones being higher. Anti-depressants are issued to help reverse these imbalances.
People tend to shudder at the mere mention of ‘anti-depressants.’ Depression is and should be acknowledged as an illness like any other that requires appropriate treatment, without embarrassment or feelings of failure.

Symptoms of depression

It can be difficult to tell the difference between feeling down and actual depression. The difference being that while a person who is stressed may be lifted after a bad week at work by going off out with the girls having fun, or simply having an enjoyable night in with a loved one; whereas a person with depression may find it near impossible to gain pleasure from activities that would normally make them happy. Depression isn’t something that will go away instantly; episodes of depression tend to last weeks and months, rather than days.
The most common symptoms tend to be:
  • Chronic fatigue, tiredness and having no energy
  • Being irritable
  • Loss in self-confidence
  • Avoiding socialising and speaking to people
  • Having a feeling of hopelessness
  • Being unable to sleep, waking early, or being unable to get out of bed in the morning
  • Difficulties concentrating and making decisions
  • Being restless, tense or anxious
  • Feeling paranoid
  • Thoughts of suicide – If you are having these thoughts please don’t feel you’re the only one, it is very common in people with depression – but it is important to speak to a GP and your family/friends for support.
Is anyone you know showing any of these symptoms? Take 5 minutes out of your day to have a proper conversation with them, encouraging them to talk openly about something they may be keeping to themselves, thus making their recovery longer: you can’t recover unless you first acknowledge a problem is there.

Treatment for depression

From my research on the subject and after speaking to various affected people of depression it seems that different things work for different people: no two depressions are the same. From a holistic point of view there are various treatments that will help the condition, but that are unlikely to ‘cure’ it. My columns tend to be subjects according to the world of me, but with this column I’ve had to delve a bit deeper; as there’s no obvious answers or explanations when it comes to this illness.
There’s no doubt that input from medical professionals is first and foremost. I believe that a little bit of both medical and holistic treatments; along with little changes to lifestyle will combine to make recovery more imminent that you may think...

Medical treatment:

Anti-depressants aren’t generally recommended for mild depression initially. Look below to the list of holistic and self-help remedies for more natural healing. For moderate to severe depression a combination of anti-depressants and cognitive behavioural therapy (talking therapy) are effective together.

Lifestyle changes:

I think one of the simplest and most effective remedies is talking. Like they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. This was the one common remedy that was shared with me after I spoke to various people who either have had depression or who know someone who has had it. Overcoming depression begins with talking about your feelings – either to close family or friends or someone that’s not directly involved in your life, like your GP or a councillor. Be careful to avoid talking to anyone who is a negative influence, or someone who simply won’t understand. If you feel your relationships are linked to your depression then be strong and try to address the problem between you.
Exercise is an excellent past time to revitalise and focus your mind. Doing a brisk ten minute walk a day taking deep, long breathes will promote a sense of calm.
Try to maintain a healthy, balanced diet that is sufficient in omega 3 fatty acids (essential for normal brain function.) A healthy diet helps to release bad toxins from the body; whereas sugary, refined foods make our blood sugar levels plummet and rise quickly, leaving you feeling sluggish and irritable. If you have depression alcohol is a big one to avoid, as alcohol is a depressant in itself and will make you feel worse than before.
Do NOT expect too much of yourself – if you need time off work to clear your head and get to the route of the problem, take it. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard ‘stress’ and ‘work’ used in the same sentence I’d be writing this from a swanky villa in Spain...
If you find past times like reading or socialising difficult then try watching some light hearted programmes on TV to take your mind off your problems - Come Dine With Me is a good example of this! Avoid watching horror films at all costs, and watching the news isn’t something that will help lighten anyone’s mood either. Heavy metal music can promote negative thinking as well.
Try not to harbour negative and sad thoughts – writing the things that are bothering you down and discuss them with those closest to you, thinking of ways to remedy them. Hating is the most negative thought of all; if you feel a strong dislike to someone just cut that person out of your life and don’t give them a second thought – chances are they’re not worth wasting your energy on in the first place!
Don’t be afraid to cry – crying is a useful and constructive way to release frustrations.

Holistic remedies:

Two of yoga’s main objectives are to reduce stress and anxiety. In yoga you learn stretches, breathing techniques and meditation; all combine to achieve a sense of well-being and peace. I’ve attended and practised yoga at home for years, and it never fails to surprise me the feeling of contentment and harmony that I walk away with after a session. But it’s important to note that activities such as yoga aren’t advised for severe depression.
Cranio sacral therapy is a powerful treatment that helps to process unresolved emotions and frees up our systems; helping us to feel less over-whelmed, much calmer and on top of things. It is recognised as an appropriate alternative medicine to help many disorders such as depression. After having many treatments by my colleague Lynda Martin (Bliss Therapy) I’m still at a loss to how it actually works so won’t attempt to describe it!
A combination of medical help, changes in lifestyle and some holistic remedies will help put you on the road to beating depression and feeling like ‘you’ again. Depression is an illness that won’t go away by itself - seek out the help that you need and embrace it. And if you feel like someone close to you is suffering take the first steps to helping them recover by speaking to them; try to be as supportive (and patient) as you can be. Our local support group ‘Catch 23’ is situated in Stornoway - visit their website at www.wiamh.org.
Thank you to everyone who took time to speak to me about their own experiences; this has helped me gain a much better understanding of depression and how serious an illness it really is.

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