For centuries, mental illnesses—like depression—were thought to be caused by moral failing, curses, or even demonic possession.
And in some ways, these unusual theories make sense.
Because if you’ve ever experienced depression…you already know it can feel like it comes out of nowhere…and is nearly impossible to beat.
During the late-19th and 20th centuries, however, mental illness slowly became recognized for what it is—a medical condition. And, eventually, experts began to think about depression as a “chemical imbalance” in the brain.
But a lot of other research for many years shows that conventional medicine still might be getting it wrong. Depression may actually be an important, protective, and biological response to stress…and one that shouldn’t go ignored.
So, let’s talk more about what scientists are still uncovering today. Then, I’ll tell you four ways you can naturally and effectively improve your mood…
Misguided mainstream depression treatment continues into the 20th century
In an attempt to treat “chemical imbalances” in the brain, experts began to hail Prozac®—one of the first selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)—as some kind of miracle drug.
Of course, SSRIs artificially raise levels of serotonin, the brain’s so-called “feel-good” neurotransmitter. But they do so in a totally unbalanced and dangerous way…without ever treating the true cause of depression.
And as time went on, it turned out that SSRIs only work as intended in about one in seven people. This means the remaining six out of seven patients continue to suffer with no end in sight.
Worse yet, research also links SSRIs with a slew of side effects. Including an increased suicide risk (which we’ll discuss in more detail in just a moment).
Nowadays, some scientists believe that the whole idea of depression as a chemical imbalance and deviation from the range of “normal” functioning is all WRONG.
In fact, they argue that depression is actually an important, natural, protective, biological adaptation to stress…
Learning from animals’ responses to stress
In the summers of 1977 and 1978, when I worked as a research volunteer in the Department of Environmental Physiology at the University of Southern California, physiologists were studying small and large animals and their stress responses.
They noted that the animals exhibited a natural, protective, “fight-or-flight” response to immediate danger (or stress).
But they also noted a second response to chronic danger (or stress), which they called “conservation-withdrawal.” Animals exhibited conservation-withdrawal (or “immobilization”) when they faced continual threats or adversity. Their bodies simply shut down and withdrew to conserve energy.
We see lots of examples of this behavior in Nature, such as the “deer caught in the headlights”…or the poor rabbit in the jaws of the fox…or the opossum “playing dead.” (Something must be working for the ancient marsupial opossum, because it has survived and even expanded its territory over tens of millions of years. And it hasn’t been displaced by the more recently evolved, and theoretically better-adapted, placental mammals of North America!)
Today, many biologists—including human biologists and anthropologists—say depression in humans is a similar, adaptive, conservation-withdrawal response to chronic adversity and stress… not just a chemical-based mental disorder.
Specifically, they say when humans detect chronic danger or stress, they too initiate defensive, protective, biological strategies, which become medically defined as depression. These strategies involve our autonomic nervous system (ANS). (Our ANS regulates unconscious bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, and sexual arousal, or lack thereof.)
When the ANS feels safe, humans experience feelings of well-being and social connection. But when the ANS feels chronic stress, it turns down metabolism (to converse energy), dulls pain, and creates a sense of disconnection.
Of course, people don’t consciously choose how, why, or whether they feel this sense of disconnection. It’s all part of an innate, unconscious, physiologic response—like your heart rate. Unfortunately, once trapped in this low state, depressed people often interpret their condition as a sign of weakness or inadequacy—which combine to create a sense of shame and wanting to keep it a secret—perhaps lengthening the duration and intensity of disconnection.
But we must always remember that conservation-withdrawal in humans serves an important, protective purpose…
It takes away the energy and impetus to turn those negative emotions and thoughts into harmful actions against oneself (and possibly against others). And it’s better to withdraw and do nothing than to do the wrong things, like carrying out harmful and misdirected actions. (When you think about it, we can actually link this safety mechanism to the Hippocratic Oath in medicine, which begins, “First, do no harm.”)
However, when a depressed person takes an SSRI, it artificially boosts energy without addressing the underlying depression. So—suddenly—unbidden, negative emotions and thoughts can find expression in suicide and even mass homicide.
In fact, about 15 years ago, when working as a consulting forensic pathologist, I began investigating such cases. One involved a successful, young professional from Washington, D.C. One day, the man got into his late-model sports car, drove to the C&O Canal along the Potomac River, took off his clothes, jumped into the river, and drowned himself.
Initially, his actions were a big mystery.
But I soon learned that in the weeks before his death, the man had begun taking an SSRI. And since then, there have been countless other cases of depressed people suddenly committing suicide (or even homicide or mass homicide) soon after beginning an SSRI regimen. (Suicide is the only fatal outcome of psychiatric practice and psychiatric drugs.)
In my view, when we think of depression as irrational and unnecessary, it stigmatizes the condition and leads to ineffective—and even dangerous—drug treatments. However, when we think of depression as representing an important, defensive, biological response, it lifts the shame and recognizes that sufferers are survivors, not invalids. And it gives these people hope for recovery.
Four simple, effective ways to improve mood without drugs
Thankfully, some medical doctors and experts in the field are now starting to see depression in this new light. In fact, last year, the British Psychological Society reported that, “depression is best thought of as an experience, or set of experiences, rather than as a disease.”
In addition, science shows you can improve your mood without resorting to dangerous drugs by following a few simple daily habits…
1.) Engage in mind-body therapy. Add activities like mindfulness meditation and yoga to your daily routine, which have been shown in many studies to improve depression and mood. (To find out which mind-body therapies will work best for you, take this short quiz and check out my book with Mike Jawer, Your Emotional Type.)
2.) Get moderate exercise. Countless studies show that getting moderate amounts of physical activity also helps lift depression. In fact, in one study, researchers gathered 126 people who had been taking SSRIs for at least two months—but, of course, still felt depressed. After four months of moderate exercise, nearly one-third of the people reported that their depression had disappeared. So, start adding about 140 to 150 minutes of light-to-moderate physical activity, like walking, swimming, gardening, or even housework, to your routine each week. And—it has the added benefit getting you out.
3.) Spend time in Nature. Simply spending time in Nature can also benefit your mood. In fact, in one study, men and women who took walks at least once a week experienced more positive emotions and lower stress. They also experienced significantly less depression. Plus, they better handled the negative effects of stressful life events, such as the death of a family member. That’s why I highly recommend taking regular walks in Nature to help lift your mood.
4.) Connect with others. Just getting out and connecting with others (long made difficult by the needless pandemic shutdowns and social distancing) can also help. It has a real benefit in shifting the ANS into a state of feeling safe and well. Even adopting a pet may help, as I reported in the July 2019 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter (“New research reveals why adopting a pet may be just what the doctor ordered”). Not yet a subscriber? All it takes is one click!
In the end, especially during these turbulent times, try to remember that nobody can really feel authentically rosy and cheerful 24/7. So, as Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going…”
Churchill himself suffered from depression, which he called, “the black dog” back then. So, as the statesman suggested, just keep going and aim to keep up the four, simple, healthy lifestyle habits I discussed here today.
Lastly, if you or a loved one struggles with suicidal thoughts, please don’t wait. Help is available now. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.
P.S. Tune back in on Thursday for my full report on science-backed nutritional supplements that help support mood.