Could your lifestyle be what is getting you down?

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Stephen Ilardi is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas. The 20 minute video below presents an interesting perspective on depression. The main emphasis is on how our modern sedentary lifestyle is incompatible with good mental health.

For what might appear to be a negative subject it is actually very enlightening and even uplifting!

Professor Illardi’s video presents a strong case for re-evaluating how we manage our lives. In particular I will highlight the following observations:

  • The primary driver for much depression appears to be the brain’s runaway stress response. This is useful in the short term to protect us against physical danger (the so called fight or flight response). However, in the long term this leads to chronic stress and a toxic inflammatory effect on the brain.
  • We were never designed for the sedentary indoor, socially isolated , fast-food-laden-sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life. This has led to the so-called ‘diseases of civilisation’ that include diabetes, asthma, allergies, obesity, many forms of cancer and depression.

Further evidence comes from how radically life has changed over the last 200 years from being primarily an agricultural, hunter-gatherer existence (for thousands of years) to the Industrial Age (the last 200 years)  and then what is now called the Information Age (in the last 50 years).

There is thus a profound mismatch between the genes we are carrying, the bodies they are creating and the life style we are living. (For more on this see Harnessing the Power of Technology Part 1 and Part 2).

Professor Ilardi’s focus is on those conditions that fall outside of the remit of Major Depressive Disorder, but are clearly still very disabling for the individual.
As we have previously mentioned antidepressant use has increased dramatically over the last few decades, but this has had little effect on levels of unhappiness. (See Why Has There Been a 400% Increase in the Prescribing of Antidepressants? and Is the Rate of Depression Increasing or Not?)

The talk focuses on 6 main ways to combat depressive thinking:

1. The power of regular exercise.
We have previously discussed the powerful antidepressant effects of exercise that are greater than any medication ever invented. (See How Do I Cope with Stress in My Life? Part 4).
Professor Ilardi proposes that the reason we struggle with exercise is that we have lost the connection between exercise and the purposes we are trying to achieve. Exercise becomes another chore that we feel we have to or ought to do. However, just regular brisk walking can be of enormous benefit.

2. The right balance of essential fatty acids.
The brain is made up of as much as 60% of fat. Essential fatty acids are vital for optimum health. In particular greater anti-inflammatory Omega -3s (found in grasses, plants, algae and the animals that eat them such as fish, livestock and poultry) as opposed to the pro-inflammatory Omega- 6s often found in processed foods.

3. Healthy sleep
There is no lasting benefit from burning the candle at both ends. It is vital to cultivate a tired body at the end of the day and a quiet mind. (See The Difference Between Talking to Your Heart and Listening to Your Heart).

4. The importance of sunlight or exposure to bright light.
A number of years ago I was involved in a research project interviewing a large number of people with Seasonal Depressive Disorder, or winter sadness brought about by lack of sunlight. That experience convinced me what a strong factor sunlight plays in mood stability. Particularly in regions farther away from the equator the combination of short days and long nights in winter can have a strong depressogenic effect.

5. Excessive rumination
Worry and fear are a feature of life. Terrible things can and do happen. I plan to write about this in future posts. However, even a brief superficial view of life shows that there is a lot to worry about. We live with a sense of uneasiness. Here is how the Pultzer Prize winning author Ernest Becker put it:

“I think that taking life seriously means something like this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation…. of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false.”

Professor Ilardi advocates a 3 step process of noticing worrying ruminations in the here-and-now; making a decision to shift focus and then redirecting attention elsewhere. I love the way that the Message version of the Bible illustrates this from Philippians 4:6-7

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life.”

(For more on this see Why does a Loving God allow Pain and Suffering?).

6. Social Connection.
Mother Teresa put it poignantly when she said:

The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.

And yet loneliness and isolation is one of the most endemic features of modern life. According to Professor Michael West of Lancaster University, the statistics are staggering. You are apparently more likely to die from loneliness than from smoking or obesity. The key issue in social connection is spending time with people who you love and who love you.

What changes could you make in your life in light of these observations?

It would be good to have your thoughts, comments and suggestions.

3 thoughts on “Could your lifestyle be what is getting you down?”

  1. Dear Dr. Sunil, I thank you for sharing this talk. It was very enlightening. I learned that a healthy lifestyle is essential to a healthy psychology. Absence of physical activity, balanced diet, social interactions, etc. worsens our mental health. I can attest this from my own personal experience. I have never been diagnosed of depression, but I do become very sad when these basic elements are missing in my everyday life. So, a big thanks, I learned something important here.

    But other than being psycho-somatic, do you think depression can eventually be stemming out of something spiritual? For instance, can we be leading a good healthy lifestyle and still be depressed because we believe the worldly teachings, say, that we came from monkeys and will die to become manure – in other words, life has no meaning or purpose? Or because we sense a deep relational problems with our family member(s)? Or we are leading an promiscuous life. Or because we are obsessed with something (job, relationship, fame, etc) that eludes us? The list can be long. But in effect, what I mean is, and what the Bible calls, sin or idolatry.

    I agree that Dr. Ilardi’s recommendations are important in preventing and alleviating depression and its symptoms. And we do want to follow them in order to fight depression and not let it ruin our psychosomatic well-being. But his measures reveal, for instance, that depression has a social aspect to it. But Dr. Ilardi’s talk seems to overlook the spiritual aspect of depression.

    Does a root-cause analysis of depression often lead to a spiritual issue? If yes, then I think in the worst case Dr. Ilardi’s recommendations can simply act as a “therapeutic bandage” that masks deeper issues and it would be end up as treating the symptoms rather than the disease.

    What are your thoughts, Dr. Sunil?


    1. Dear Shiv
      Many thanks for your thoughtful response and encouragement. Yes I agree the talk does not go into the spiritual side of depression at all – the speaker is very much coming from a secular world view.

      As you point out there is also the issue of idolatry in its broadest sense – trying to fill the God shaped holes of our lives with people or things that can never ultimately satisfy. Our hearts can literally become black holes that are suck everything out of us, as they can never be filled.
      Tim Keller in his very helpful book Counterfeit Gods goes into this in much more detail when he describes the issue of how the human heart is an idol factory that ultimately disappoints. He says in his book:
      “There is a difference between sorrow and despair. Sorrow is pain for which there are sources of consolation. Sorrow comes from losing one good thing among others, so that if you experience a career reversal, you can find comfort in your family to get you through it. Despair, however, is inconsolable, because it comes from losing an ultimate thing. When you lose the ultimate source of your meaning or hope, there are no alternative sources to turn to. It breaks your spirit.”

      An Old Testament example is from 1 Kings 21 when Naboth refused to sell Ahab his vineyard. Ahab’s response was in v4 and illustrates how his spirit was completely crushed:

      So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.

      But on the other hand, that does not mean all depression is due to sin or self-centredness.

      There are many other spiritual forces at work as well.
      God sent trials for our sanctification that are ultimately for our good; some have described this as the dark night of the soul. Mother Theresa is an example of a person who from her writings talks of going 10 years without a clear sense of God’s presence.
      Demonic attacks can also cause oppression. Being plagued by self doubt and extreme heaviness has been an experience of many Christian saints over the centuries who have sought to be obedient to God’s calling on their life.
      Depressive feelings can certainly be a part of spiritual warfare. In our modern Western world, demonic attacks and possession has often been reserved to the comical with cartoons of a comic character holding a pitchfork in his hand. However, throughout history and across cultures, belief in the presence of powerful negative forces has been consistently present. C.S. Lewis helpfully points out, “there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

      I hope that is helpful.
      Kind regards

      1. Dr. Sunil, I appreciate your response. Thanks for pointing out spiritual causes other than sin, such as the demonic, which can cause depression.


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    This information is for educational purposes only, and is in no way intended to be personal medical advice. Please ask your physician about any health guidelines seen in this blog, as everyone is different in his or her medical needs.