Mind-body connection in depression

Deep breathing, heat, exercise, mindfulness meditation and even country walks are all proven aids

Depression can be as incapacitating as physical illness. But there are physical actions you can take to help overcome it.

Hold your breath!
Sit up with your back straight, look upwards and smile. You should already feel a lighter mood. Yes?
Now with one hand on your stomach, take a deep breath in through your nose. Make sure that your diaphragm – not your chest – inflates with enough air to create a feeling of stretching in the lungs.

Take 5 to 10 deep, slow breaths per minute like this for 5 minutes – ideally twice a day. You’ll not only feel more relaxed, but you’ll experience an almost instant reduction in your heart rate and blood pressure. Make it part of your daily routine – and the results will really delight you.
This exercise is based on yoga breathing and has been shown to be effective in lowering stress and anxiety.

Get hot!
Have you ever wondered why a hot bath, sunbathing, a sauna, or a steam room are all so relaxing? When you heat up your body, you reduce muscle tension and anxiety. Sensations of warmth appear to directly affect the neurotransmitter serotonin – which in turn positively affects your mood. One of the reasons that exercise improves your mood is because you get hot while you’re doing it.

Exercise increases the production of the ‘feel-good’ hormones called endorphins, which directly improves your mood.

It has many other health benefits including weight control, increasing energy, improving sleep and reducing inflammation. And we now know that reducing the inflammation that accumulates in body tissues as we get older reduces the risk of dementia, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. See www.inflamm-ageing.com.

Brisk walking to get out of breath, 4 to 5 times a week is all it takes – ideally in a park, countryside or wooded area. But for faster results, try a short bout of high intensity exercise that raises your heart rate.

Learn ‘mindfulness meditation’
What is the pattern of your breathing when you are angry? Typically it’s shallow, short breaths. But you take long, deep breaths when you are relaxed and happy. Clearly your breathing is strongly influenced by how you feel.

So can negative emotions be transformed by changing your breathing? Yes, says a lot of research, especially on the Mindfulness Meditation movement – which was originally a Buddhist practice but is now a mainstream type of therapy.

Published research by the University of Oxford showed that an online course called Be Mindful at www.bemindful.co.uk reduces anxiety, depression, and stress. In 2014 a meta-analysis of scientific studies on mindfulness meditation, by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality concluded that:

“Meditation programs, in particular mindfulness programs, reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress”. And “there is … evidence that mindfulness meditation programs may lead to improvement in dimensions of negative affect, including anxiety, depression, and perceived stress/general distress.”

Mindfulness Meditation is usually started by sitting with eyes closed, cross-legged on a cushion or a chair, with the back straight – rather as we recommended above.

Pay attention to the movement of your abdomen when breathing in and out, or on your breath as it goes in and out of the nostrils. As thoughts inevitably come up, re-focus on the initial object of meditation, which is the breathing.

You will notice your mind begins to wander, but accept that in a non-judgmental way. Meditation usually starts with short periods of 10 minutes or so a day. It becomes easier to keep your attention focused on your breathing as you practise more. Then as you progress, let yourself become aware of your thoughts and feelings so that instead of feeling overwhelmed by them, you are able to manage them.

You can find free guided activities from 3 – 12 minutes long, including Breathing Meditation that you can play on your computer or mobile phone at www.marc.ucla.edu.

Do something new
When you’re depressed, you are likely to feel passive. Push yourself to do something different. It could be reading a new book, volunteering at a charity, a new hobby or learning a language.

There’s a reason – challenging ourselves to do something different increases levels of the brain chemical dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and enjoyment.