Dealing with Depression

by Robert M. Oliva, CSW

Depression is a very common condition in our society. Researchers estimate that 25 percent of women and 12 percent of men suffer from depression in the United States. Learning how to prevent and deal with depression in safe and natural ways can be an important step in maintaining a healthy and vigorous lifestyle.

Depressed or Sad?

All of us get sad from time to time. Usually this is a response to specific life events. We may be disappointed in a relationship or lose a significant person in our lives. Being sad is a normal reaction to life events. But when we are depressed the sadness deepens and continues for a prolonged time. We tend to lose interest in our daily lives. The following symptoms are all signs of depression. If you experience four or five of them together for more than a few weeks, consult with a mental health provider or physician.

  • Feelings of helplessness, guilt, and unworthiness
  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness, and pessimism
  • Drastic change in appetite with rapid weight gain or loss
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Decreased or increased sleep
  • Unaccountable aches and pains
  • Thoughts of suicide or death (seek immediate assistance)
  • Loss of pleasure in your usual activities
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Difficulty making decisions, concentrating or remembering

Causes of Depression

Depression may come from many sources. For some it can start from the loss of a loved one or failing at some important task. For others, depression may come from a poor diet. Depression may be activated by a physical illness or from taking prescription medications. Intense physical and mental trauma may also induce depression. It is a complex disorder and demands a variety of interventions to counteract it.

As we get older we may experience many more losses than in previous years. Friends, spouses, relatives may die or become ill. We ourselves may have failing health or become more isolated than before. Even the normal decline in physical and mental functions may be upsetting to us. Our bodies just don't work as well as they did. We also tend to eat more sporadically and suffer nutritionally because our bodies are not absorbing certain nutrients very effectively, especially the B vitamins. For some of us, retirement or its prospect may confront us with new, unanticipated stresses. This can all add up to feelings of sadness or sometimes lead to depression.

In recent years, doctors have been treating depression increasingly with medications. SSRIs are a new generation of antidepressant drugs (Prozac, etc.) that increase the amount of serotonin in the brain. For suffering severe depression, especially if accompanied by suicidal thoughts, medical intervention is appropriate. For milder cases, however, there are many natural and safe ways of lessening depressive symptoms.

Strategies for Dealing with Depression

Psychotherapy: Depression may indicate that something isn't right with our relationships, our lifestyle or even our perceptions of ourselves. Consulting with a mental health practitioner can help sort things out in a caring setting. Finding out what makes one depressed and working on thoughts and behaviors that help maintain emotional balance is a very helpful way of dealing with depression. Studies indicate that those taking medication and participating in psychotherapy do better than those that rely only on drugs.

Exercise: Scientists have extensively studied the role of exercise in decreasing depressive symptoms. A study of 5,000 college students found a significant reduction in depression and anxiety through regular physical exercise. Another study found that depression was three times greater in a no-exercise group than in a group of regular exercisers. Aerobic and anaerobic exercises have both been found effective in combating depression. Walking, jogging, tennis, weightlifting, etc. are all great ways of counteracting the lethargy and helplessness of depression.

Diet: Eating a diet balanced in protein, complex carbohydrates, and essential fatty acids is important to maintaining healthy brain function. Our diets are too high in simple, refined carbohydrates. Cut down on the sugar! Load up on antioxidants in fresh vegetables. Eat plenty of fish filled with healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Get plenty of B vitamins necessary for a healthy nervous system by eating lean red meat and a variety of fresh produce.

Socialize: Depressed people tend to isolate themselves. This reinforces feelings of hopelessness. A good antidote is to get out and socialize with people you trust. Have a good time, go dancing, do active things you enjoy. Socializing serves to increase interpersonal bonds and feelings of hope and acceptance. Getting out also increases energy levels. Get going!

Support Groups: Research indicates that people recover from physical and emotional problems much more rapidly if they participate in support groups. Being in a group helps people to verbalize their emotions, feel connected to others, and give one a new perspective. You can find groups in schools, churches, mental health centers, etc. Sometimes just joining a club or civic organization is sufficient.

See a Physician or Naturopath: Depression may be caused by physical illness. If you feel depressed it is important to seek assistance from a physician or holistic medical practitioner. Treatment for thyroid, digestive and adrenal problems may clear up depressive episodes. Holistic practitioners may also recommend natural remedies such as St. John's Wort. Over 25 studies on St. John's Wort have indicated it is effective treating mild to moderate depression.

Treatment Does Work

Depression is not a sign of personal weakness. It can be a reaction to external events, internal emotions or even brain chemistry. Depression is treatable. If you feel depressed, especially if you have thoughts of suicide, seek proper treatment. Consult with a mental health provider or physician now.

You don't have to accept depression as a part of life or of getting older. People get depressed at all stages of life. But as we age we may have fewer physical reserves and outlets that once served as buffers against depression. We may also be less physically active and our diets may not be what they once were. Many of us may be taking medication that can induce depression. This needs to be taken very seriously. Speak to your physician about any of the medications you are taking.

It's important to reflect on how you feel and what's going on in your life. Don't just accept feeling depressed. It can be treated. If you decide that you are depressed, seek appropriate help.

If you feel you need to talk to someone about your feelings you can speak to your physician or naturopath. You can also speak to a psychologist or social worker. Remember, research indicates that those who take medication and psychotherapy do best.

© Robert M. Oliva, CSW

Robert M. Oliva, CSW was a licensed social worker, contributing editor of Healthy Aging at