With the dark and cold months upon us, I figured it might a good time to write a quick piece on the subject of depression, or seasonal affective disorder and how training and diet might be helpful in overcoming those illnesses. As someone who has battled with mild, and not so mild depression over the years, this topic is somewhat personal. I hope that my experience will be of help to others.
Disclaimer: I will not touch upon the subject of anti-depressants, since I am by no means qualified to speak thereof. If I mention medication, it is only in the context of my personal experience, which is not to be taken as scientific fact.
So let's dive right in. How do you know that you are depressed? Truth is you don't. It is a moving target and you can only do so much to asses your degree of depression.
Typical symptoms would be: loss of interest in usually pleasurable activities (such as getting huge), fatigue, changes in appetite, sleep disturbances (sleeping too much or too little), difficulties concentrating, anger, anxiety, indecision (that is particularly bad, it gets to the point where some people can not decide which dish to order in a restaurant), and apathy.
Men tend to exhibit irritable behavior, women have feelings of sadness. None of these statements are absolutes, but if you find that three or more symptoms fit you, you might want to take a closer look.
As hard as it is, do not rely on self-diagnosis. It will only make things worse. Try to find someone you can trust and speak openly to. Sometimes an outsider, i.e. a qualified professional works best.
Let's assume you have established that you suffer from depression or SAD.
Should you now curl up on the couch and eat donuts? Trust me, I know that feeling, and have wanted to. While this sounds tempting, it will only make things worse for you in the long run. Once you come off the sugar high, you will feel like a train had hit you. Nobody feels particular great when you are packing on the pounds.
10 Tips to Stay Strong and Motivated
Here is my top tip-list on how to slay the dragon called depression.
Tip #1 - Get Help
Get help. Sounds easy, yet it is the hardest part. After all, aren't we a bunch meat eating, heavy metal listening, alpha males with extraordinary amounts of muscles? Yes, but I still wouldn't pull my own tooth out if it hurts.
Talk to to whoever you feel comfortable with, whether it is family member, a friend or a pro. Sometimes it is easier to deal with those matters in front of a neutral professional, so seek out a therapist if you feel it could be helpful.
Tip 2 - Free Yourself of the Stigma
Free yourself of the stigma. Very often, people who suffer from depression feel like other people don't take them seriously. Well meant advice such as: "it is always darkest before dawn" or "pull yourself together" doesn't really help. Depression is a medical condition and needs to be treated as such.
If your surroundings aren't supportive, it might be time for a change. I mean it. Nobody would tell a cancer patient that "he is just feeling down." You should get the same respect. Please note, I said respect, not pity.
Tip 3 - Get Tested for Vitamin D Deficiency
Get tested for Vitamin D deficiency and low thyroid levels. You will need blood work to determine your levels. Living in the northern hemisphere, the majority of us suffer from Vitamin D deficiency due to the lack of sunlight.
Being low on Vitamin D can cause such lovely symptoms as: loss of energy, sluggishness, extreme fatigue. It easily be fixed via supplementation. Low thyroid levels produce similar symptoms: feeling tired, weak, or depressed, dry skin, brittle nails, cold hands and feet, weak immune system, memory problems or having trouble thinking clearly.
If you experience any of these symptoms, you might want to ask your doctor for some more extensive testing in order to see if you need to be treated.
Tip #4 - Keep Training
Keep training. This seems like a no-brainer. We all know that working out makes you feel better and raises your confidence level. Yet it is incredibly hard to get out of the house and into the gym when suffering from depression. The task of working out seems insurmountable, as if someone asked you to fix our beloved Congress.
A couple things that I have learned over the years might be helpful. First, find a training partner and set an appointment. If there is someone waiting for you at the gym, you'll be less likely to simply blow that person off. Second, time your workouts. Depression comes with low energy levels, so 90 minutes workouts are out the question (as they should be for most people anyway).
Write up your workout, set your phone or watch to 40 minutes, and go. The short breaks will give you a nice pump and release endorphins quickly. In addition, a 40 minutes pump workout will seem way more achievable than a monster 10x10 squat session, so you are more likely to do it.
Tip #5 - Set Goals and Hold Yourself Accountable
Set goals and hold yourself accountable. I have touched upon this in my last article, 10 Things I Learned: Improving Your Training, Diet And Motivation, but let me reiterate a bit. Having both short term and long term goals can be of great help in overcoming depression. The short term goal should be achievable within two weeks (i.e. I want to add 5 lbs to my incline bench).
The long term goal can be a contest of a photo shoot with a great physique photographer. Achieving the small goals will build up your confidence and keep you coming back for more. Before you know it, you are in front of the lens of Alex Ardenti!
Tip #6 - Stay Involved
Stay involved. Socializing is most likely the last thing on your mind, but isolating yourself will make things much worse. I can tell you from personal experience that whenever I dragged myself (actually it is usually my wife who convinces me to go) to an event, I was happy that I went.
Lunches are a good starting point, since they will only last an hour. So if you feel miserable, there is an end in sight. Watching sports in a bar is also pretty good, since you can phase in and out as you please. If you have mastered these, you can tackle bigger things.
Tip #7 - Trick the Cravings
Trick the cravings. Depression often causes cravings for comfort foods. The problem with this is that cravings aren't really bodybuilding compatible. Anti-depressants can enhance this feeling, making you reach for donuts and deep fried Snickers (hmm donuts).
Thankfully, it is 2013 and we have a great array of tools available to create our own healthy "junk". The P28 bread French toast is my weapon of choice, but feel free to come up with your own high protein recipes for cookies or brownies.
Tip #8 - Do Not Oversleep
Sleep, but do not oversleep. Getting enough high quality sleep is critical when it comes to depression. I personally had good experiences when using ZMA and passion flower before bed. However, there is such a thing as too much sleep, which can make the depression worse.
If you are racking up 14 hours plus per day, you need to change things up. Try getting more sunlight, find something you enjoy doing, etc.
Tip #9 - Get Into the Sun
Get out. Into the sun that is. Sunlight produces more Vitamin D than you could potentially take in via food (20 minutes of sun exposure equals about 10,000 IU). So try to get out as much as you can, even if you just walk to pick your lunch instead of having it delivered. This goes in particular for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. As for tanning beds, use with extreme caution.
Tip #10 - Understand the Worst Symptom
Lastly, be aware that one of the worst symptoms of depression is the inability to perceive a better future. One gets stuck in the belief that it will always as gloomy as it is now. However, if you tackle it rep by rep and meal by meal, chances are you will be pulling yourself up and emerge happier, leaner and stronger!