1. What you eatYou know the expression, you are what you eat, of course. We might also say: You feel what you eat. In a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers in Australia linked a typical Western diet—of processed or fried foods, refined grains, sugary products, and beer—to greater depression and anxiety in women compared to a diet of vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and whole grains. The researchers, from the Deakin University School of Medicine in Australia, believe that it’s the composition of our microbiome, that community of microorganisms living in our digestive system, that exert an influence on mental health. In continuing research, they’re exploring how improving the diet can help ease psychological symptoms. They’re also looking into the connection between depression and “leaky gut,” a condition in which a weakened stomach lining allows the contents of the gut to leak into the body and trigger an immune response that, in turn, contributes to depression. Until scientists can pinpoint the exact dietary culprits behind psychological distress, it can’t hurt to cut back on the sugary, carby crap—like white bread, white pasta, and pastries—and eat more whole, fresh foods that you recognize from nature.
2. How you sleep (or don’t)
It’s no surprise that lack of shut-eye plays a major role in mental health. “Sleep disturbance is a significant depression symptom, and changes in sleep patterns, such as insomnia, can signal, or even trigger, a depressive episode,” says Jean Kim, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University. Insomnia is common in people with depression, she adds, as is early morning awakening. To help people with depression sleep better, Kim advises some good old fashioned sleep hygiene: keeping bedtime and wake-times consistent and shutting off screens a few hours before bedtime to limit blue light, which can throw off melatonin cycles.
3. Your social media habits
Social media is not always a happy pastime. Not only have researchers identified a phenomenon called “Facebook depression”—the result of not getting the likes one hopes for in relation to their number of friends—but there’s now plenty of evidence linking depression with excessive digital activity, like texting, watching video clips, video gaming, chatting, emailing, and other media use. Kim suspects it may be related to feelings of isolation and can exacerbate social anxiety among those who might be prone to it. On the flip side, she says, Facebook can ease symptoms of depression in some cases of those who feel isolated, because it aids socialization. If Facebook bums you out more than it makes you happy, take long social media breaks and remember that most people are only posting about the good stuff in their lives—not the parking tickets, bad haircuts, and dishes piled in the sink.
4. Your stress management style
Stressful situations can sink depressives into a deeper funk. But they don’t affect everyone equally. A study in the journal Science that explored why stressful experiences lead to depression in some people, but not in others, found the likely culprit to be a gene that regulates serotonin levels in the brain. Of course you can’t swap out your genes, but you can take steps to keep stress levels in check. A study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindful meditation—the practice of contemplating the present moment and breathing deeply—can be effective in easing psychological stress. Stop, Breathe and Think is an easy-to-use app that can help you learn to practice mindful meditation.
5. The weather
While a recent study conducted at the Auburn University at Montgomery questioned the validity of Seasonal Affective Disorder, anecdotal evidence suggests that some people do tend to get low in the winter when there’s less daylight. Kim agrees that some correlation with seasonal changes have been noted with respect to depression and daylight-hour length. Since sunlight requires no prescription, it doesn’t hurt to get plenty if it improves your mood. One study found early morning exposure to light to be more effective than midday or late afternoon light exposure.
6. Whether you light up
Everyone knows that smoking is bad for you, but if you suffer from depression, smoking can worsen your symptoms. According to a study in the BMJ, smokers who quit felt less depressed and had a more positive mood and quality of life compared to those who kept lighting up. Kim attributes the difference to the up-and-down mood swings caused by nicotine addiction. “Nicotine has some calming and focusing effects, but withdrawal may cause irritability and anxiety,” she says.
7. How much you drink
It’s well established that heavy drinking can spur temporary episodes of depression, also called substance-induced depression, but it can be a bit of a chicken-egg scenario. “It might be a form of self-medication for underlying depression, but alcoholusually makes depression worse because it has depressant effects,” Kim says. Stick to moderate consumption—one glass per day for women, two for men—to make sure booze isn’t worsening your blues.