Skip to content

Depression and Anxiety: Help and Treatment

A Practical Guide to Feeling Good

Everyone is bipolar

It is a fact that humans are bipolar. That’s how we were built.

In terms of neurotransmitters and hormones, we have those that tend to calm us down, make us feel more relaxed, and give a sense of contentment. These represent the Yin, or female element of our physiology.

We also have neurotransmitters and hormones that excite, that stimulate, and that fuel intense exertion. These represent the Yang, or male element.

But we in the West have it wrong by calling it ‘Yin Yang’. In Chinese it’s called ‘Tai Ji’, the same as the slow martial art, and it represents the balance between the two extremes. And as Yin contains a dot of Yang, Yang contains Yin as well. The two are inseparable.

So when we consider the bipolar spectrum in mental health, we just need to understand that it is more important to balance the whole body and use our mental illness symptoms to provide feedback.

Don’t get too caught up in labels. They are just trying to capture specific details of the symptoms people suffer, without any insight as to what the underlying causing is. Psychiatry without a sophisticated understanding of the body-mind connection is meaningless.

Our symptoms clue us in to whether we are hyper-aroused, hypo-aroused, or a strange combination of the too.


Depression is characterized by low energy, low mood, appetite and sleep disturbances, and negative thinking. I think it’s fair to say that there is something wrong with a depressed person’s serotonin (5HT), but we still have no clue how it works and what relationship it has to depression.

Depression is definitely a Yin state, an overabundance of Yin if you will. Yin is cold, dark, slow, black/blue, introverted, and damp. It’s like north side of a hill, which will feel much colder than the south side, which receives the warming and drying rays of the sun.

There is a distinct lack of drive, motivation, courage, and mojo in this state. These are Yang characteristics, and for whatever reason either Yang is deficient, Yin is overabundant, or both.

The solution? Boost Yang, which will dry out some of the cold and dampness that tends to accompany depression. Stimulating medications or herbs will increase Yang and hopefully increase the effect of norepinphrine (adrenaline) and dopamine, the ‘pleasure chemical’.

Caution: This is where some people can tend to ‘flip’ to an over-aroused, hypomanic state. This is because their bodies are so weak, and Yin is also deficient, so they don’t have enough energy to feel grounded and stable.

Boosting Yang without also nurturing Yin could actually cause a false flash of energy, after which the person would end up feeling even more exhausted.

Hyper-aroused/anxious and hypomanic

Our bodies respond to stress, any stress, by pumping out some serious hormones. These hormones cause a cascade of changes to virtually every major system in the body. They prepare us for action, shunting blood away from the digestive organs, increasing muscle tone, and elevating heart rate.

Small periods of stress followed by rest and recovery are actually beneficial. Its just that life doesn’t work that way anymore. We have to worry about all sorts of things beyond basic survival, which is ironic in that we’re forgetting how to survive–nay, thrive.

Chronic stress and anxiety will result in a chronic pumping out of these stress hormones. And that means we tend to become very tense, anxious, and scared all the time. Because that’s exactly what’s going on in the body, whether or not the mind is aware of it.

This is where you get all sorts of chronic problems with digestion, back pain, insomnia, generalized anxiety, circulatory problems, headaches, and just feeling stressed out all the time.

Some people actually respond well to stimulation if they tend to have an excess of Yin. This is especially true in the mood and energy departments. But there is a fine line that can be crossed, and judgement may become impaired if there is a tendency to become hypomanic or manic. Here the problem is not being able to calm down, to truly relax and recover.

Qi deficiency: Yin & Yang both deficient

This state is basically a state of deep exhaustion. The body can no longer hold up under the onslaught of chronic stress. It can no longer properly maintain homeostasis, immunity, and metabolism.

It is also known as adrenal fatigue or insufficiency. These terms are met with incredulity by those versed in western medicine, but they are no closer to understanding what is really going on, and what can be done to reverse it.

That’s because there is no western model of the structure of energy, from physical to emotional, to mental and even subconscious.

A person encompasses many different levels, from our bodies, to our feelings, to our thoughts, and even our dreams. These levels are different states of energy, and they are all as real as that which we can touch or believe in.

The beauty of energy is that we can feel it. When we have enough, we feel like we can take on the world. When we don’t have it, we feel like we can’t even get out of bed.

If our body is healthy, our emotions are balanced, and our mind is clear, is this not the picture of health? Whatever happened to being healthy? How could something so fundamental be ignored and relegated to a fringe movement?

We have no unified model of health and how to achieve it at all levels of human function.

Trust your feelings, Luke

You must learn to access your emotions and to key in to the emotions of others. You need to guard your energy because it’s very precious. Don’t just have enough energy to get by, have enough energy to do what you want to do with your life.

This is a calm energy, one that facilitates good decision making and a sense of security. Your body is not going through some sort of physiological emergency due to stress, so all that energy can now be directed towards recovery and eventually productive activities.

So you must study yourself and learn what things seem to decrease your energy, and what things seem to boost it. Everything from sleep habits, diet, relationships, vices, and even what we say can affect our energy and the energy of those around us. You must master your energy and learn to live in harmony with the energies around you.

Relationship problems are probably the most stressful events of our lives, or the thought of losing someone forever. Sometimes the stress can overwhelm people and they end up with a hair trigger at all times just because they are sensitive to stressors. That’s a dangerous thing once people go into fight or flight mode. Either way, you lose.

The most important thing to do is to recognize and honor your emotions, and honor the emotions of others. When everyone speaks honestly about how they feel, it is less about proving a point then just accepting that everyone has a sacred right to feel whatever they feel.

While our arguments may be wrong, our feelings are always right. All we want is for others to recognize our feelings and then we are more open to taking theirs into consideration. When people accept each other’s emotions they can usually work something out that makes both parties feel respected.

Always seek harmony

Practice moderation. Always seek to balance that which is out of balance. The depth of one’s understanding of Yin and Yang can help you to find balance in all areas of your life, not just your neurotransmitters.

Seek to understand the pros and cons of Yin and Yang, and learn to cycle through them with no attachment to either phase. Yin eventually leads to Yang, and Yang eventually gives way to Yin again.

So on and so forth. Oscillating. A sine wave. You build up momentum bouncing between opposite poles,  being very active and engaged for optimum amounts of time, and then quickly going into recovery mode so that you can gain momentum for the next period of work.

Sprint, recover. Sprint, recover. If you were to work out this way, you’d develop a high level of cardiovascular fitness as well as muscular development.

High intensity work followed by ritualized recovery follows the way of nature and allows people to be more positive and creative on a regular basis. The idea of the marathon is just not suitable for long term productivity.

So if you feel bipolar, you need to embrace both sides of the coin and see how one supports the other. The better you rest, the more energy you have to spend, and spending energy wisely can yield steady returns, just like investing money.

And once you are getting steady returns on your energy every day, you will start to think more long term and learn patience, slowly but steadily increasing your energy until it nearly overflows, activating your true potential.


Regardless of which therapeutic techniques you choose to utilize in your recovery from depression and anxiety, it is important to keep in mind the goal: to be healthy.

Because depression and anxiety can completely dominate your thinking and even your life, we have to remember that there is a world outside the illness, and that is what we are seeking.

For some of us, we may not have a good idea of what being healthy is. Oftentimes our families are dysfunctional, and we do not learn how to properly identify and work with our emotions. How truly sad it is to consider the fact that many people grow up knowing only pain, fear, violence, and abuse.

The reason this is sad is because we know that this is not the way things should be. In many instances we become depressed because our environment is not giving us what we need in order to thrive.

Humans have very basic emotional needs, and when these needs are not met early on, we don’t learn what it feels like to be satisfied, to be content. And without a chance to relax and just take in our experience with a calm heart, we become truly unhappy.

We develop methods to cope with our unmet needs. Some of these methods are healthy, but more often than not we learn unhealthy ways of dealing with our conflicted emotions.

Smoking, drinking, taking drugs, promiscuous sex, and other behaviors that eventually ruin our health are the norm in today’s society. Or we may get completely cut off from our emotions altogether. We go through life not understanding our most basic source of energy, and we suffer dearly as a result.

There is great beauty in healthy thinking and behavior. You could say that it is when nature is allowed to shine. It is important to spend time with healthy people in order to learn that it is not only possible to be healthy, but also to know what health looks like, sounds like, and feels like.

Healthy people are blessed with the background and the skills to handle life’s pressures. If we only model ourselves after unhealthy people, which may include our parents and other family members, we will be limited to unhealthy ways of dealing with conflict and stress.

Healthy people are not immune to stress, and they suffer just as much as any one else when they experience pain and disappointment. What sets them apart, however, is that they are able to identify, experience, process, and then move on from a painful situation.

It’s that ability to allow ourselves to experience our negative emotions, but not get stuck in that energy state, that we must master in order to grow beyond our situations and truly embrace health.

Another way to experience health is to spend time in nature. When not influenced by man’s behavior, we can observe how nature seeks balance and continues to thrive. Gardening, raising animals, and observing life in its myriad forms can teach us a lot about the gifts that we were born with, the ability truly live and express ourselves as intended by our creator.

Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, the entire basis of science is that there is order to the universe, and that by observing it we can unlock some if its secrets.

But there are no secrets; everything we need to understand is within our grasp if we just allow ourselves to open up and receive it. We only need to trust in ourselves and start listening to what our hearts tell us that we need.

When fear, anxiety, greed, guilt, and anger fall away, all that’s left is our true nature. We may have just forgotten that it was there all along, quietly telling us that we are OK. We’ve always been OK.

Jump to a symptom group:

Why diagnosing depression is so important

One of the most difficult aspects of properly treating depression is getting properly diagnosed. Most people suffer for a long time before they even consider getting help.

The negative stigma surrounding mental disorders causes as much harm as the illnesses themselves, resulting in unnecessary guilt, shame, and embarrassment.

Unfortunately, sometimes those close to us are not educated about mental disorders, and they unknowingly make things worse by telling you that what you are going through is somehow your fault, or that you would feel better if you would just_______.

Getting an official diagnosis of depression

In order for a doctor to make an official diagnosis of major depressive disorder, the clinical term for depression, certain conditions need to be met.

Doctors rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders version IV, or DSM-IV, to diagnose depression. If you want to take a look at the official version, see the page on DSM-IV criteria for diagnosing a  major depressive episode and major depressive disorder.

If you don’t want to wade through all that technical language, and I certainly don’t blame you for taking a pass, I’ll give you the gist of it in plain English.

The main symptoms of depression

The two major symptoms are depressed mood and loss of interest or pleasure.

Depressed Mood

There are many ways to describe this, such as feeling sad, blue, glum, down, melancholy, under the weather, etc. They all mean the same thing: you feel terrible.

You may or may not have a good reason to feel down. If you’ve been feeling this way for at least two weeks, you might be experiencing a major depressive episode, which means that you should be concerned.

If it goes on for at least two months, you probably have major depressive disorder, and you need to consider seeing a doctor. And when I say “consider seeing a doctor”, that’s just a polite way of saying get your ass to the doctor ASAP.

You don’t have to wait two months just to be sure. If you know that something is wrong, don’t hesitate to get checked out.

Loss of interest or pleasure

Not everyone who is depressed will feel sad. Sometimes depression just makes life seem boring or dull. You might lose interest in going out with your friends, or you might not have the motivation to work.

You just don’t get the same enjoyment you used to from certain activities. Nothing seems interesting anymore.

This is a very serious sign, because living without having interest in things or not gaining pleasure from activities becomes hard to bear.

People are motivated to avoid pain and to seek pleasure. When you can no longer feel pleasure, you are left with trying to avoid pain. That’s no way to live.

What if I have a good reason for feeling depressed?

There are certainly many situations where you might feel depressed for two weeks or longer. Experiencing the loss of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or dealing with chronic stress are all good reasons for why you might feel depressed for a period of time.

But if you’ve been feeling down for two months, you are probably not coping with the situation in a healthy way.

Some people are more sensitive to stress, and it isn’t because they are weak. There are biological reasons why Peter might bounce back from a difficult situation in a few weeks, but Paul will end up getting depressed.

That’s why these symptoms need to be accompanied by at least four others, at least according to the DSM-IV.

Back to menu of symptoms

Other symptoms of depression

Depression doesn’t only affect your mood and your ability to feel pleasure. It also affects four aspects of your life that are fundamental to health: sleep, appetite, energy, and thinking.

Once you start to experience problems in any of these areas, you know that your depression is becoming an illness, not just a passing mood.

Without proper sleep, appetite, energy, and positive thinking, your physical health and your self-esteem start going downhill fast.

If you start to notice any of these symptoms, go directly to the doctor’s office. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.


Not getting a good night’s rest affects your energy and your ability to think clearly. You might respond to bad night’s rest by drinking coffee, colas, Red Bull, or by taking other stimulating drugs such as methamphetamine or cocaine.

That might work in the short term, but over time it will deeply exhaust your energy reserves. Even though you are exhausted, you still might have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Caffeine has that affect on some people.

As your ability to get a good night’s rest deteriorates, the idea of getting eight hours of sleep becomes a fantasy–wishful thinking at best.

This can set up a vicious cycle of daytime drowsiness and nighttime insomnia that leaves you feeling like a zombie–a cranky, irritable zombie that can’t concentrate too well.

Problems with sleep are serious. Whether you sleep too much or too little, it’ll have a negative impact on your ability to function.

Don’t poo-poo sleep problems. They are a really good sign that you are having a major depressive episode.

Back to menu of symptoms


Like problems with sleep, changes to your appetite will affect every other aspect of your life. Whether your appetite shrinks or grows, it will seriously mess with your energy levels and undermine your health.

It’s hard to force yourself to eat when you have no appetite, but without enough calories and nutrients you just won’t have any gas in your tank.

Just being alive requires a certain number of calories, not to mention that your brain is an organ that requires a great deal of energy.

Eating too much is obviously not a good choice either, but food cravings are not to be trifled with. Unfortunately, people tend to go for fast-food and snacks when they have strong food cravings. It’s easy to eat too much but remain undernourished.

Back to menu of symptoms


Depression sucks the energy out of your body like a vampire. Everything becomes a huge effort, and you start to worry that you might not have enough time to get everything done.

You might also stop participating in your favorite activities, provided you still get pleasure from doing them, since you don’t have the energy to care or be social.

This will make you feel restless, bored, and frustrated, since you don’t have the opportunity to blow off stream and to express yourself.

This will also add to your feeling of isolation and lonliness, as you gradually become a hermit that only leaves the house for cigarettes, Ramen noodles, and toilet paper. Not good.

Back to menu of symptoms


Changes in thinking are the most frightening and insidious symptoms of depression.

When you are depressed, negative thoughts dominate your thinking. You find it easier to complain about things, and it’s harder to see the positive side of anything.

This is really dangerous when you start to judge yourself. Your self-esteem will plummet as the depression magnifies all your faults and masks all your good qualities.

You’ll eventually start to lose hope, fearing that the future no longer holds any promise for you.

Depression distorts your thinking and makes it difficult to see things in a fair way. It’s common to think in broad, black-and-white terms, and more often than not, you’ll see black.

Back to menu of symptoms

The worse symptom of all

The longer you are depressed, the harder it will become to seek help. One of the symptoms of depression that is not spelled out clearly in the DSM-IV, but in my experience goes hand-in-hand with depression, is that you will not want to seek help.

For whatever reason, depression does everything it can to take control of your life and ruin it. You will do everything and anything except seek help. You will beat yourself up with guilt, and you’ll feel like you’re the only one who has this problem, even though the statistics are clear that mental disorders are more common than you think.

Back to menu of symptoms

Depression is difficult to understand, but it doesn’t have to be that way

Recognizing the symptoms of depression is crucial for getting proper treatment. It’s often difficult to recognize depression, because it’s so easy to hide the symptoms from others, or even yourself.

Depression affects everyone differently, and the symptoms can easily be confused with normal expressions of sadness, anger, worry, and other emotions. It’s hard to draw the line between normal emotions and feelings caused by depression.

That’s why it’s necessary for people to have a clear idea of what depression is, how it affects different people, and how to get proper treatment for it. Only then can we start putting an end to needless suffering, and help people to get back to the business of enjoying life.

Back to menu of symptoms

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Should you see a psychiatrist or a psychologist?

If the symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety and fatigue are seriously impacting your performance and well-being, it’s time to seek professional help. But how do you decide who to see, a psychiatrist of a psychologist?

This article describes the difference between the two, and provides some suggestions for choosing the right specialist for your condition.

What is a psychiatrist?

Let’s start with a definition1:

A psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in psychiatry and is certified in treating mental disorders. All psychiatrists are trained in diagnostic evaluation and in psychotherapy. As part of their evaluation of the patient, psychiatrists are one of the few mental health professionals who may prescribe psychiatric medication, conduct physical examinations, order and interpret laboratory tests…

The important thing to note is that a psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D.) that is a specialist in mental disorders. She will have gone through four years of medical school, just like your regular doctor1.

A psychiatrist has the power to prescribe psychiatric medications, and can order all manner of laboratory and other tests to help diagnose and treat you.

What can I expect from a psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist can help you select medication to control your symptoms. Although a general practitioner may be able to prescribe certain psychiatric medications, such as antidepressants, he is probably not nearly as experienced as a psychiatrist at prescribing them.

Diagnosing and treating mental disorders is very difficult. Since many of the symptoms are subjective, i.e. you have to describe them to your doctor because there is no test for them, it really takes an experienced specialist to figure out what’s going on and recommend the best treatment.

A good psychiatrist can also help you to deal with the possible side-effects of medication. Since psychiatric drugs can have a strong impact on your mind and body, they might also have some effects that may not be desirable.

A psychiatrist will be familiar with the common side-effects of different medications, and can suggest alternatives for you.

What shouldn’t I expect from a psychiatrist?

Although your psychiatrist has probably received training in psychotherapy, chances are that she doesn’t offer this service. That’s because therapy is really a separate type of treatment that requires its own set of skills and experience.  If your psychiatrist does offer therapy, I see no reason not to take advantage of this to maximize your chances of success.

In most cases, your psychiatrist will focus on what your symptoms, such as problems with sleep, appetite, mood, energy, and negative thinking, as well as the severity of these symptoms. This allows her to form a good picture of your illness, and how severely it is affecting your ability to function.

I know you may be dying to have someone to listen to you and take you seriously, and a good psychiatrist should be patient and take the time to listen to you. But there just isn’t enough time to delve into the complicated nature of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the relatively short amount of time you’ll have during your appointment.

Stay focused on describing your symptoms as clearly as possible, and don’t take it personally if your psychiatrist doesn’t appear to show a lot of empathy. It’s not that she doesn’t care, she’s just trying to figure out the best medication for you so you can get better as soon as possible.

I recommend seeing a psychiatrist first

I recommend seeing a psychiatrist first, because you need a proper diagnosis before you can begin treatment.  A psychiatrist also has the medical training to determine if your symptoms might be due to something other than mental disorder.

If it turns out that you do have a mental disorder, and the best treatment is medication, you can get started right away with a prescription. It’s possible that the right medication may relieve most of your symptoms.

Assuming you do respond to medication, and are able to eat, sleep, and maybe even do some light exercise, you can start building your energy so you can face the work of recovery.

I do caution you not to expect medication to cure you completely. Depression and anxiety almost always result from stress and lifestyle factors, so it will be necessary to address the sources of stress in your life.

Be prepared to take an honest look at your lifestyle, and make the necessary changes to improve your chances of getting better and staying well.

What’s a psychologist? What do they do?

Psychologists refer to all people who study and apply psychology, the science of mind and behavior3:

Most typically, people encounter psychologists and think of the discipline as involving the work of clinical psychologists or counseling psychologists. While counseling and psychotherapy are common activities for psychologists, these applied fields are just one branch in the larger domain of psychology. Research and teaching comprise a major role among psychologists.

That means not all psychologists are counselors or therapists. A psychologist that practices therapy will have an advanced degree as well as clinical experience conducting therapy with patients.

What is psychotherapy? What kind of psychotherapy should I get?

Psychologists help patients with mental disorders to increase their sense of well-being by employing various forms of psychotherapy.

In general, psychotherapy involves the patient and the therapist gradually forming a trusting relationship, so that the patient can feel comfortable talking freely about his thoughts and feelings.

The goal of therapy is to help a person to better understand his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, with the goal of resolving problems that are interfering with his ability to live a healthy life.

There are a number of different kinds of therapy, and it isn’t possible to single out one type as the best. One popular type of psychotherapy is called cognitive-behavioral therapy(CBT).

CBT helps a person to become more aware of his thoughts and behaviors and how they influence each other to cause some of the symptoms of mental disorders. It is considered an effective therapy for depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.

Depression can cause negative thinking, low self esteem, and make it hard to accomplish even basic tasks. Not being able to accomplish tasks can cause further negative thinking and feelings, and so on it goes, causing a person to spiral lower and lower.

CBT trains you to break that cycle and substitute more positive ways of thinking, which will affect how you act. How you act affects how you feel about yourself, thus creating a positive spiral.

There are many other forms of psychotherapy, and one should start off with an open mind. This article from takes a look at the effectiveness of various forms of psychotherapy.

Do I need medication or therapy?

In some cases, therapy alone can relieve the symptoms of depression, so that a person can feel well enough to function. In fact, in some studies, therapy has been shown to make as much of change to the structure of the brain as antidepressants4, although the changes are not exactly the same.

The point is, therapy definitely helps, and that help can be seen in brain scans.

The best advice, however, is to combine medication with therapy. Both treatments will help you to cope with life’s pressures in a more positive way.

Since medical treatment can be expensive, you may have to choose to see only one specialist. In that case, it’s best to find out how severe your illness is. Then you can select the most effective and affordable treatment.

Find out how severe your illness is first

Since you really can’t diagnose yourself, go see a psychiatrist first. Tell him everything you can think of about your symptoms.

If your doctor does not suggest it himself, ask to fill out some form of questionnaire, so the doctor can compute a score that describes how severe your illness is. Just ask if you can take a “mood questionnaire” or if there is a way to have your symptoms scored.

It’s easy to forget details about your symptoms once you’re actually sitting in front of the doctor.

Ask the doctor to print out the form for you at the end of each visit, along with any prescriptions. Remember to fill it out before your next appointment, or at least fill it out while you’re waiting to see the doctor.

Therapy might be the way

If your depression turns out to be mild or moderate, that is, you are still able to function for the most part, and you are not suicidal or utterly hopeless, you and your doctor may decide that you don’t need to take medication.

Therapy might be able to help you to sort things out so you can feel better and behave in a way that is consistent with your true self.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t have an illness, by the way, just because therapy is mainly talking. Like I said before, therapy can actually make positive changes to your brain.

Be prepared to be open minded and honest with yourself and your therapist. Therapy is not easy, but addressing your thoughts and feelings will go a long way toward helping you to get well.

Don’t forget about exercise!

Don’t forget that exercise is a powerful and free treatment for depression and anxiety. Some studies have concluded that it just as effective as taking medication5.

When medication is the right choice

If your sleep, appetite, and energy are disrupted to the point that you cannot function and/or you are starting to feel hopeless, you need some sort of intervention to help you get back on your feet. That’s when you will want to consider medication.

I know that taking psychiatric medication carries a very negative stigma. But denial will only delay your recovery, so try to let go of your hangups and make getting well your highest priority.

Selecting medication is far from an exact science. People have their own unique responses to medication, so the only way to find the right one is to give each medication a fair trial. That usually entails taking the medicine for at least a month.

If you really aren’t comfortable with the medication your doctor suggests, don’t be afraid to speak up. Remember: you are the one in charge of your recovery, and you’ve enlisted the help of a psychiatrist to help you.

Your psychiatrist should inform you of the usual responses to a particular medication, as well as the potential side-effects. If he doesn’t, make sure to ask.

You always have the choice to decline treatment, ask for other options, or even switch doctors if you really don’t feel comfortable with the one you are seeing.

I will go into more detail about the process of selecting and trying out medications in a future article. It’s a pretty large topic, but as usual I will try to boil it down to the essential information and action steps.

Whichever way you choose to go, remember that you’ve taken a big step toward feeling better.

Good luck and never give up.

Further reading

This article from the New York Times Magazine, written by a psychiatrist, gives a candid and sometimes critical view of psychiatry, psychotherapy, and treating mental illness. It’s definitely worth reading.


2 In the UK and Ireland, training is typically longer than in the US or Canada.

Tags: , , , , , ,

A different reason to exercise: pump up your brain

You’ve probably heard the advice that exercise is good for your depression and anxiety symptoms. That advice probably came from a chipper, fit person who looks like he’s never been depressed a day in his life.

When you are suffering from depression and anxiety, getting enough exercise seems like the least of your worries. You have enough trouble trying to make it through each day. It’s also hard to find the motivation to exercise when you are depressed.

But exciting new research into the effects of exercise on the brain may give you a different reason to consider exercising regularly. Not only can regular exercise improve your mood and calm you down in the short-term, it may also be your best bet for undoing the damage that stress and depression can cause to your brain.

Stress shrinks your hippocampus

What’s in the heck is a hippocampus? Since when do animals go to college? (groan!)

According to Wikipedia1:

The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other mammals. It belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in long-term memory and spatial navigation.

So the hippocampus is involved in forming memories, among other things.

According to the book Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Dr. John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman, a little bit of stress can help you to form memories by activating the hippocampus. After the stress has passed, your brain stores the memory during this recovery period.

Think of how your emotional reaction to some major tragedy, such as hearing about the horrible 9/11 attacks, cemented that event into your mind forever. This is an evolutionary adaptation that helps you to remember dangerous, stress-inducing situations, and hopefully avoid them in the future. Emotion makes a memory more…uh, memorable.

That is all fine and good for the occasional encounter with a saber-toothed cat. But chronic stress, which is an arguably unnatural condition, exposes your brain to stress hormones for far too long without a break. This eventually causes brain cells to disconnect from their neighboring cells, wither, and die.

How depressing.

Scientists have come up with some pretty convincing evidence that severe depression and chronic stress can cause damage to the hippocampus, which causes it to shrink2. In some cases, the hippocampus was found to be nearly 20% smaller in people with severe depression!

The amount of shrinkage was greater the longer a person was depressed. That’s a very good reason not to let your depression and anxiety go untreated for too long. It’s not just hard on your heart and soul, but on your brain as well.

The size of your hippocampus counts–you too, ladies

A smaller hippocampus is associated with slower rates of learning, poorer memory, and it messes with your ability to deal with and properly react to stressful situations.

According to Spark!, which does a good job of explaining the science behind all this, when we are under a large amount of stress our hippocampus is overwhelmed by stress hormones. The result is that we have a lot harder time remembering things we ought to, such as where the fire extinguisher is when a kitchen fire suddenly breaks out.

We also tend to focus too intently on the stress itself, and block out everything else. You probably won’t remember what color pants you were wearing a week after that kitchen fire.

The Good News

Keep in mind that the reference where I got the 20% shrinkage figure from was written in 2001. Those were the dark ages in terms of what science now knows about the brain’s ability to continue growing, That article was just the beginning of a whole new understanding of the brain.

In the past, scientists thought that once a person became an adult, new brain cells, or neurons, were no longer formed. In fact, aging was seen as a slow but steady loss of precious neurons.

If you read Spark!, or sample any of the current research into neurogenesis, i.e. the (re)growth of neurons, it turns out that it is not only possible for new neurons to sprout throughout your lifetime, but you can stimulate this growth by taking certain medications3 and…by exercising.

Your brain is a garden. Exercise is like applying fertilizer.

It turns out that exercise releases a bunch of chemicals with long names such as: brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), and fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2).

Notice the words “growth factor” being repeated there? That means that these natural chemicals all work to encourage the growth of new neurons, like Miracle-Gro, to borrow the analogy used by the authors of Spark!. The hippocampus is one place where they are quite sure that this growth happens.

Take a second to consider what that means:

Exercise can reverse the damage caused by stress and depression.

This is huge!

Mental disorders are so frustrating, because you can’t see them, you can’t take a bloodtest for them, so people still act like they are some kind of imaginary brain cooties even in the 21st century, for goodness sake.

Knowing that there are real changes that occur in your brain because of these illnesses–at least according to the best evidence–gives us tangible proof that mental disorders are real diseases, and they need to be taken just as seriously.

It’s not your fault that it took this long for science to start finding evidence for what we knew all along. This is cutting edge research we’re talking about. It turns out that we didn’t know everything there was to know about something like plain-old exercise.

So what kind of exercise should I be doing?

There isn’t yet a system of prescribing exercises to treat depression and anxiety, but it seems that moderately difficult aerobic exercise is the best for fertilizing your wilted, neural garden. You want to get your heart rate up and breathe a bit harder.

The thing is, most people aren’t ready to start running or doing heavy activity, so it might be good to start with walking. Walk as slow or as fast as you like, and see if you can do it for at least 15 minutes. If you can only handle 5-10 minutes at first, that’s fine. The fact that you got out the door and did it is a major accomplishment when you’re very ill.

Try to make a habit of walking every day, at about the same time. That way it can become a part of your routine, and will add some structure to your day. Your body will also get used to it, and you may even feel your body telling you that it’s time for your daily walk.

I’ll leave it up to you to see where you might take it from there. Slow jogging is not too hard after you can walk 30-45 minutes at a time. You can always jog a little, walk a little, jog a little, etc. Lots of people do that, actually. You don’t have to be able to bust out a 2-mile run to enjoy a little jogging.

Riding a bike, swimming, and roller-skating/blading are good because they make you feel like a kid. I sure hope you had some good times as a kid doing some of these activities. If not, it’s never too late to start.





You’re not alone

You feel exhausted all the time, and every day feels like a marathon. You toss back cup after cup of coffee or Diet Coke just to get through the day, but you inevitably face the crash that comes after each quick lift.

You’ve started to become worried about the future, and you’re paralyzed by a never-ending series of “what ifs” and worst case scenarios running through your mind. You can’t get to sleep at night, and then once you do, you can’t wake up in the morning.

All the pleasure has been sucked out of life, and it’s getting harder and harder to keep going like this.

The Facts

The sobering truth is that you may be suffering from a mental disorder, and you are not alone. An estimated 26.2% of adults in the U.S. suffer from a “diagnosable mental disorder” in any given year*. That works out to roughly 58 million people.

That’s an incredible amount of people suffering from very real illnesses, but chances are they don’t even realize it?

If you consider more recent census data and statistics on mental disorders, like they did at the World of Psychology website, the numbers increase to 32.4% of adults, which is about 75 million people. That means 1 in 3 American adults has been affected by a mental disorder in the past year.

Mental disorders are more common than most people realize. Normal, hard-working people like you and me stand a good chance of experiencing the symptoms of a mental disorder at some point in our lives.

Mental disorders are the most common form of disability in North America

Leading the way are anxiety disorders, which affect over 18% of the population, or 40 million people. The next most prevalent form of mental disorder is depression, which affects 8% of the population, or 18 million people, in both major and more moderate, but chronic forms. The often misunderstood bipolar disorders affect another 6 million people.

Many people also suffer from more than one mental disorder at once. For instance, it’s very common to suffer from depression and anxiety at the same time.

Substance abuse is also more likely if you already have some form of mental illness.

If mental disorders are so common, why don’t I hear about them more often?

In short, pride and ignorance. Pride makes us deny that we might be ill. Being ill has somehow become shameful or embarrassing.

Mental illness, which carries a very negative stigma–often associated with words like “crazy” or “unstable”–is a label that no one wants placed on them.

While it is very likely that a significant number of your friends, family and coworkers have been affected by a mental disorder at some point in their lives, they sure aren’t talking about it. Nobody likes a complainer, right?

And the less people talk about it, the easier it is for ignorance to dominate people’s opinions. The truth remains hidden, and millions continue to suffer needlessly.

Life is stressful…I just need to tough it out, right?

Everyone responds to stress differently. If you read books that describe the biology of stress, such as Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, you’ll find out that a good portion of your body’s response to stress was established before you were even born.

That doesn’t mean that you have no control over your life. It simply means that your response to stress is unique, and it isn’t necessarily your choice as to how much stress you can take before you reach your physical and mental limit. It isn’t all a matter of willpower.

Some people seem able to take an enormous amount of stress and abuse, but don’t seem affected by it at all. And some people’s nervous systems react strongly to stress, and they have a hard time calming down once the stress has passed. Since life isn’t about to cut you a break just because you’re tunes a bit more sensitively, this can lead to a chronic state of emergency or anxiety that slowly depletes your limited energy reserves.

Without adequate energy, you’ll start to feel the physical, emotional, and mental effects of depression, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. Scientists can easily induce some of the symptoms of mental illness in healthy mice, rats, and even human subjects, by exposing them to stressful stimuli for long enough. That’s why people use torture to overwhelm a person, so that they eventually break down and submit. Anyone who’s been depressed or anxious for long enough will tell you that it is torture.

This is only one theory for the cause of some mental disorders. Try as they might, researchers still have yet to discover the real cause of most mental disorders. These are people that dedicate their lives to studying the brain and its relationship to health, and they still scratch their heads and can only offer theories. But that doesn’t mean that the situation is hopeless. Far from it.

Maybe I do have a mental disorder. That explains the sadness, fatigue, guilt, anger…so what do I do?

That’s what this website is all about. I’ve found a way to control my mood and manage my energy, and I think the best approach combines conventional and complementary/alternative methods. You can Google to your heart’s content, and you’ll be sure to learn a lot, but for some reason the worlds of medicine, traditional healing, and first-hand experiences don’t like to mix. That’s a shame, because they all have something valuable to contribute.

Keep in mind that the opinions contained on this site are just that, opinions, and I am not a medical professional, nor should my advice be taken as some sort of guaranteed cure for what ails you. That’s something that no one can promise.

But I am someone who has suffered from mental illness firsthand, and I have enough of a background in science and health to have gleaned some insights from the hundreds of hours that I’ve spent researching in the library and online. I’ve also spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars on different medications, supplements, and herbs. I’ve shared my ideas with other people, and some of them have seen positive results as well.

Visit your doctor

The best way to get started is to visit your doctor and get checked out. Eliminate the possibility of an organic cause for your symptoms, such as hypothyroidism, or some other condition that can cause symptoms that are very similar to those of mental disorders.

After that, make an appointment to see a psychiatrist. They are pros at dealing with mental disorders, and you want someone experienced to guide your recovery. Try to ignore the stigma attached to words that start with psych- . It doesn’t mean “crazy”. It just means having to do with the mind. Your health is more important than other people’s prejudices, anyway.

Begin treatment

Once you’ve received a diagnosis from the doctors, and you’ve considered your options in terms of treatment, you’re ready to start making some important decisions. This website will offer up some tips that can help you to make the right choices for your unique situation.

I know you might feel too scared and confused to act, but doing nothing will not make your illness go away. By deciding to take action and seek help, you take a huge step toward feeling better.

It’s common for depressed people to doubt that they are really ill. That’s the illness talking, as well as the power of denial. I listened to those lies for far too long. Don’t waste any more of your time watching your life slowly spin out of control, feeling guilty and hopeless about your situation. It just ain’t right.

Be patient

The most important thing is to not get too discouraged if it takes some time to find a treatment that works. A person’s entire being is affected by depression, so it is a complicated task to get things back on track. Be patient. Learn about as many options as you can, and try them one after another until you get the relief you want. Stay open-minded, and never give up hope.


* Unless otherwise specified, all statistics are taken from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website: