Music and Mass General. These are the two things Andrew Marshall credits with saving his life, leading him to live out his passion for music today as a contestant on “The Voice.”
Although simple remedies for sadness, anxiety or depression can help, they can’t replace treatment by a mental health professional. The combination of psychotherapy and medication these professionals prescribe can be critical components of your journey toward mental health.
However, certain lifestyle changes can complement a more structured treatment plan. And living a healthier, more fulfilling life also may help lift your spirits if you’re just feeling a little low.
Amy Farabaugh, PhD, director of Psychotherapy Research at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Depression Clinical & Research Program, says some time-tested methods of brightening your outlook shouldn’t be dismissed as too simple or too clichéd.
“Exercise does have the tendency to boost one’s mood,” she says. “Eating better is another simple, but effective way to feel better. Just getting into a normal routine in your life can help.”
Dr. Farabaugh also recommends asking yourself some hard questions, too. “Am I too focused on myself? That can be a symptom of depression for some folks,” she says. “Am I present in my daily life? You can be sad, but still present. Are you engaging in life? Are you participating? It can be anything or everything.”
Engage in Life
Becoming focused on yourself and your problems is a normal response when emotions run high. It can work to your advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you use all that self-focused attention. If all you’re doing is wallowing in your sadness, rather than looking to make a positive change, then it’s probably not time well-spent.
However, if you use that time to focus on your health and think about ways to improve your outlook, then you’re making a good decision. The key is to turn your good ideas into action.
Dr. Farabaugh says it can be as simple as doing the things that make you happy. Think about what you enjoy. Make a list if that will help. Feel liberated enough to do the things that give you pleasure.
“Maybe writing poetry or seeing your grandkids makes you happy,” she says. “If that’s the case, then make time for those things. We tend to be happier when we’re doing something that makes us happy.”
However, if poetry isn’t your thing or your grandkids stress you out, don’t force yourself to do things just because others find them rewarding. You may have a friend who always feels better after jogging a couple of miles. If jogging makes you sore and miserable, find another way to be active.
Amy Farabaugh, PhD
Exercise does have the tendency to boost one’s mood. Eating better is another simple, but effective way to feel better. Just getting into a normal routine in your life can help.
Director, Psychotherapy Research, Mass General's Depression Clinical & Research Program
One other way to avoid dwelling in an unhealthy way on your problems is to volunteer. Helping others has the dual benefit of forcing you to consider someone else’s situation rather than your own (at least for a while), and it offers the reward of knowing you’re helping others. You may find even greater satisfaction helping a friend or family member who is dealing with a problem. Whatever is making you sad or depressed may not seem as difficult when you’re walking in another person’s shoes.
Make Healthy Choices
Not all home remedies for sadness are helpful. Being in a funk can often lead a person to drink excessively or take illicit drugs to ease the pain. You may feel that you’re entitled to a drink because you’re feeling low. This is self-medicating, and it can be dangerous.
Just remember that alcohol is a depressant, and that it can be easy to grow dependent on it, especially if you view alcohol as something you “need” to help you get through a difficult time. “Drinking is probably not the best thing for depression or sadness,” Dr. Farabaugh says.
Instead of relaxing with a drink, try relaxing through meditation. You don’t need to be an expert. Just find a quiet place in your home and spend 10 minutes with your eyes closed and your breathing slow and deep. Visualize a serene, happy location and let your mind take in all the sounds, sights, smells and sensations you can enjoy there.
Dr. Farabaugh adds one other do-it yourself tip for coping with sadness or depression: Focus on the journey, not the destination. All you really have is today, so find ways to make today happier and let little upsets go.
You may have a vision of where you want to be in your life, and if you’re not there yet or don’t seem to be heading toward that destination, it can be easy to grow discouraged and frustrated. Too often we live with the disappointment that our lives aren’t quite what we envisioned.
Instead of always looking far down the road, take in all the things that are right around you, right now. Being mindful can make a big difference. “The path is what is important,” Dr. Farabaugh says. “The outcome is unknown.”
This article originally appeared in Mind, Mood & Memory, a publication of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital dedicated to maintaining mental fitness from middle age and beyond.
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