One of my favourite documentary shows is Air Crash Investigations. Each episode recounts a plane crash from recent years or decades and tells the story of the investigation into what happened and why. Time and again, the investigators conclude that it is rarely a single problem that causes an air disaster, but rather a combination or “cascade” of factors combine to result in a calamity.
The same can often be said for falling into depression. Lots of seemingly little things can contribute to a personal emotional crash. The good news from this observation is that small adjustments to how I think or behave can go a long way to preventing a depressive episode.
Here are four attitudes and behaviours that can help anyone to maintain good mental health and keep those susceptible to depression from going into a nosedive, or help with pulling out of one.
1. Manage the spikes
Being able to see the bigger picture is very important for all of us, especially if we are under stress and have a tendency to be anxious or glum. Think of any given time period in your life whether it be a day, a week, a month or year. If you were to plot how you felt on a graph (assuming you were in reasonable health) there will likely be mostly steadiness, shallow waves, and a few spikes of distress. How we handle these spikes can make a big difference to how things play out. For me, half the battle is won once I recognize I'm in a spike of distress, that the world isn’t ending, and it will inevitably pass. (See my article titled This Too Shall Pass for more insight into managing spikes).
2. Accept that which you cannot change
Most of us could admit to wasting plenty of mental energy fighting a reality we didn’t like having to deal with. I’m talking about more than simply wishing something wasn't so. This is the stewing or brooding type of cognition that perpetuates fear or anger and doesn’t allow me to acknowledge the given circumstance for what it is and move on.
This is much easier said than done, especially when it comes to life changing events or developments that lead to hardship and/or heartbreak. Nevertheless, the sooner we come to grips with our circumstance and consciously acknowledge that we can’t change the past, the sooner we can focus on what we can do to proceed healthily with positive motivation.
3. Be organized
Put simply, being organized with your life minimizes unnecessary stress. This is especially true in the age we live in where there is so much to juggle and seemingly so little time to take a breath.
I liken the brain’s operating capacity to working memory (known as RAM) in a computer. If I ask my computer to do too many things at once (e.g. having 15 web browsers open that are all buffering or downloading media), it reaches a threshold before it begins to slow down how quickly it does everything. This is because my computer has only so much RAM. The same goes for the brain. In my experience, being poorly organized leads to having too many considerations going on at once and pretty soon I feel overwhelmed, lose confidence and focus.
One example of minimising my brain’s working memory burden is setting reminders. I like to use the personal calendar on my mobile phone to remind me of appointments and errands I need to run, and the same goes for my work calendar for meetings and meeting deadlines. Being organized will look different for each individual, but to whatever degree is practical for you, it is worth investing time to this. (See this article for more insights into managing time shortage and anxiety.)
4. Be healthily occupied
How we spend our time has a direct impact on our mental health. While this may seem obvious, it has been my experience that having a conscious focus on what I am doing and why is very helpful in making decisions on how to occupy myself at any given point in the day or week.
To be sure, many people don’t have much discretionary time if they for example have a demanding job or are raising young children. Yet even in these cases, making decisions about boundaries to work hours and sharing the child minding with one’s partner ought to be made with an eye to what is sustainable for your mental health. What’s more, even how a busy person spends their free time can have a decisive impact on his or her overall mood.
In the digital age we live in it is very easy to treat the mobile phone as simply an extension of one’s right hand, constantly checking it and scrolling through the latest news and social media feeds even when walking down the street or in the company of someone else. This puts the mind in a constant state of distraction (think of my RAM analogy) and is the opposite of being mindful.
The last thing I’ll say about this is the value of making time for stillness, reflection and prayer. The Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac once noted that because we live in a time of spiritual aridity, “the vital equilibrium between action and contemplation has been lost, to the apparent profit of the first, but for the very same reason, to its detriment”. If this was true at the time of writing 30 years ago, how much more so today. The video below provides some insight into the value of making one's inner life a priority.