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Self-Help Strategies for Anxiety, Depression & Other Mental Health Problems
The First Line of Defense for Improving Mental Health
The Men’s Doc’s Top 10 List
Left untreated, a man’s mental health problem – such as anxiety, stress, depression, or unchecked anger – will often worsen and can result in damaging, long-term consequences for himself, his career, his relationships, his family and children. These consequences are all preventable. Although they’re very serious – and even potentially life-threatening – these mental health problems are also very treatable.
If you want to relieve your symptoms and feel better, there’s lots of good news. There is a wide array of options for improving your mental health. And before you reach for some fashionable designer drug, there are a number of simple things that you can do.
Here’s a list of what I consider to be the first line of defense for reducing anger, anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health concerns.
Research shows that normal, healthy adults who go without good sleep for just one month begin to show clinical signs of depression. And a lack of sleep can make even the most level-headed person become irritable and short-tempered. That’s because sleep deprivation leads to changes in the brain, which include changes in neurochemicals and in hormones.
So, good sleep is critical – and one of the simplest ways to both reduce the risk of depression and to treat it. But many men don’t get enough sleep, and on average, get less than women. The cut-off for good health, in general, appears to be six hours. Less than that, and a man is increasing his risk of depression – as well as his risk of disease and death.
If you have problems with sleeping, it’s important to nip it in the bud because it can quickly lead to more problems with sleeping and to anxiety and depression. So, for that reason, either over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids are very useful in the short term. Longer-term solutions require life-style changes.
There has been lots of research on exercise and depression. Although there are a number of problems with this research, the findings do suggest that exercise – particularly aerobic exercise – can be effective in both preventing and treating depression. The way this most likely works is by the release of feel-good brain chemicals – like neurotransmitters and endorphins – or the reduction of immune system chemicals that can worsen depression. The simple calming effect of an increased body temperature may also help to explain this effect.
The best evidence to date – based on the analysis of 14 randomized controlled trials – indicates that to effectively treat depression with exercise requires three 30-minute sessions per week of aerobic exercise at 60–80% of maximum heart rate for at least 8 weeks. So, if in doubt, go for a run. You’ll also sleep better, which will further improve your mood.
There’s a growing body of research that has examined depression and meditation (yes, sitting and contemplating your navel, while you let any judgments about your sagging tummy simply float away into the ethers). The findings from this research suggest that meditation can be effective in reducing both the risk of depression and its symptoms. Starting with just a few minutes a day can even help.
Meditation is pretty simple. Just sit in a chair or on the floor in a quiet place, keeping your head and back comfortably straight with your hands in your lap. Close your eyes. Focus your attention on your breathing and the sensation of air moving in and out of your body, entering your nose and leaving your mouth. As thoughts and feelings come into your mind, try to put them aside and return your focus to your breathing.
If you’re like most people, you’ll be distracted a lot by your thoughts and feelings. It’s to be expected. Just keep returning your attention to your breathing. Start by doing this for just a few minutes at a time. Eventually, see if you can work your way up to 10 minutes.
Drinking more alcohol is a common way that men attempt to manage their anxiety and depression. It’s also the least helpful way they try to do this. Rather than helping, an increase in alcohol use typically compounds the problem. In fact, there’s good science indicating the abuse of alcohol can actually lead to depression.
Long-term alcohol use has also been linked with anxiety. On the flip side, staying dry can eliminate anxiety symptoms. Alcohol can also interfere with good sleep, further compounding the problems of anxiety and depression. Because alcohol makes us less inhibited and more impulsive, it also makes us more prone to anger, aggression and violence.
Research shows that if you do drink, it’s best for your health – both physical and mental – to limit it to two drinks a day.
Social support is strongly linked with improved mental health and decreased stress. People who lack social support are also more likely to get angry. Unfortunately, men have fewer friends and smaller social networks than women, which increases our risk for mental health problems.
So, men need to make an extra effort get out and socialize – especially if you notice that you’re burying yourself in your work. Working constantly sometimes signals an underlying depression, which will only worsen without social support. Scheduling regular golf games or nights out with buddies, joining a club or volunteering in your community are all ways of becoming more socially connected and improving mental health.
There’s some recent research suggesting that anxiety and depression are influenced by nutritional factors – for better or for worse. Scientists have also begun to uncover some potentially beneficial dietary factors that can be effectively used in the treatment of these problems. The science is still young, but in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to add some omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 to your diet. A little poached salmon would be perfect, as well other fish containing omega-3 fatty acids, like tuna and mackerel. Dark green vegetables, flaxseed, nuts, and soybeans are other sources of omega-3s. For sources of B12, look to seafood, low-fat dairy products, fortified cereals, and supplements.
Carbohydrates have been found to raise the level of serotonin in your brain, which can contribute to a sense of well-being. But rather than reaching for that piece of cake – or other high-fat comfort foods – get a hold of a low-fat carb like popcorn, a baked potato, or pasta, as well as ones with the added benefit of fiber, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You might also consider skipping that fifth cup of coffee. Too many caffeinated drinks can make you cranky, jittery, or anxious. Besides improving your mood, limiting caffeine can also help you sleep better at night – which is important for preventing depression.
Being overweight is linked with depression. And research shows that overweight people who lose weight often reduce their symptoms of depression. Combining exercise with dietary changes that includes more fatty fish and dark green vegetables would not only help with weight loss, but could also super charge your anti-depression strategy.
#8 Bright Light Therapy
Bright light therapy is a common treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression that typically occurs in the fall or winter. This is usually done with a light therapy box. The box – which can be set on a table where you’re working, reading or eating – gives off bright light mimicking natural outdoor light. The bright light is believed to influence the regulation of brain chemicals affecting mood, like melatonin and serotonin. Despite its popularity, research findings have been inconsistent. Bright light therapy appears to be more effective in treating SAD than nonseasonal depression, although it can be helpful when it’s used as an adjunct to prescription antidepressants for treating nonseasonal depression.
It’s no surprise to most men that orgasm can leave you feeling relaxed and sleepy. Not such a bad thing if it’s late and you’ve got a packed scheduled in the day ahead. Having sex or masturbating can be calming. Ejaculation is a complex process that involves the intricate interplay of sympathetic, parasympathetic, and somatic nervous systems and the science on this subject is surprisingly new.
At this point, most of what we know about the neurophysiology of ejaculation is based on animal studies. Along with semen, a host of brain chemicals are released with ejaculation, including norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, nitric oxide. Levels of the “happy neurochemicals” serotonin and endorphin, for example, have been found to rise in post-orgasmic rats. At the same time, there’s a surge in oxytocin – which is believed to reduce stress levels and may be one of the reasons antidepressant medications (SSRIs, specifically) are effective. Possibly adding to this calming effect is the release of the hormone prolactin, thought to be associated with the sleepy feeling after sex. Some scientists liken ejaculation to a “heroin rush.”
So, these findings suggest that having sex – or taking matters into your own hands – may bring some temporary relief to stress or anxiety. And more frequent ejaculations will also reduce your risk of prostate cancer.
#10 Counseling, Psychotherapy or Talk Therapy
Psychotherapy works. In treating anxiety and depression, talk therapy has been shown to be far better than no treatment at all. It’s also usually equally effective as treatment with medications alone – and sometimes even better and longer lasting.
For some men, “therapy” is a scary word. If that’s the case, think of talk therapy as consultation or coaching. The fact is, everyone needs a good coach or teammate sometimes.
These are the best, non-pharmaceutical alternatives for addressing anxiety, anger, stress, and depression. And apart from their mental health benefits, most have a variety of additional health benefits. So you can’t go wrong.
Additionally, all these self-help alternatives lack any negative side-effects, which can appear endless on the warning labels of pharmaceutical drugs.
If you’re not getting better, however, don’t soldier on alone for too long.
There can come a time when an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication is the best alternative. So, if your symptoms persist, be sure to consult with a mental health professional.
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