Happy New Year! We have officially started a new year (some say a new decade) and now is the perfect time to make sure your mental health is in great shape.

What is Mental Health and Depression?

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It affects our daily functioning, including how we cope with stress and make decisions. At some point in our lives, we all experience mental health issues. Ranging from a conflict with a colleague at work to feeling overwhelmed with life to the loss of a loved one. Anything that affects our quality of life, including routine daily stressors, affects our psychological or emotional wellbeing. And that’s OK. The key is to identify a mental health issue early on to avoid worsening or progression of symptoms.

Depression, specifically, is a mental health condition caused by chemical imbalances in the brain that cause feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or lack of joy or interest in doing things that once yielded happiness (i.e. sex, sports, hobbies). It can also result in:

  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Lack of energy
  • Weight gain or loss, appetite changes
  • Restlessness, anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Physically moving or speaking slower than usual
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Interestingly, depression can also cause physical problems like headaches or body pain that are otherwise unexplained.

Confronting Depression

The first step to confronting depression is recognizing that your mental health is not where you would like it to be. Overwhelming feelings of angst, hopelessness, helplessness, isolation, and other unwanted emotions should be acknowledged.

The second step is identifying resources and using them. Having a shoulder to lean on, or a support system, is an excellent way to cope with depression. While having a support system is great for your wellbeing, seeking care from a mental health provider is just as important.

When I am with patients and suggest they see a therapist, the response is often “I’m not crazy!” This stigma has been around for years and I believe it impacts our decision to seek mental health care. It’s time to speak openly and freely about mental wellness. If we seek care when we have the common cold, which is essentially a viral infection that is treatable by over the counter medications, then we should also seek care from a mental health provider when we aren’t feeling our best.

When seeing a mental health provider or attending therapy sessions, it is the lack of bias that makes the interaction so important. Providers and therapy attendees provide direct or indirect ways to cope with the hardships of depression. While antidepressant medications are prescribed for some individuals with depression, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is also used alone or in combination with medication. CBT involves learning how to control and fight the unwanted feelings of depression and counteracting the negative behaviors that come with these feelings. Additional teachings of self-reflection serve as tools for future management of depressive symptoms.

The third step to confronting depression is maintaining your balance. You can do this when you:

  • Set goals. Know what makes you happy and what activities you enjoy and consciously increase the amount of time you spend doing these activities. You may not be able to have fun but doing things that make you happy help to redirect some of those negative feelings.
  • Be consistent. Try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day. Cut back on caffeine and alcohol intake.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Look into yoga, tai chi, meditation, self-havening, and see what suits you. Then commit to it.
  • Encourage yourself. Give yourself a pat on the back for trying to think positively. Tell your loved ones to do the same. Consider keeping a blessing jar and write one thing daily that makes you feel blessed.
  • Stay connected. Stay in contact with people that matter to you. You are not a burden to others. Your loved ones care.
  • Get some sunlight. Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression stemming from reduced daylight hours of winter. Sunlight boosts serotonin levels and helps improve your mood. Even just fifteen minutes a day goes a long way.

So, as you work to meet your 2020 goals, be sure to include seeing a mental health professional the next time you feel overwhelmed, depressed, or just need someone objective to talk with. Remember you’re not alone, you are not a burden, and it is okay to see someone for help.

Vaneet SandhuVaneet Sandhu, MD is a rheumatologist an assistant professor in the Division of Rheumatology at Loma Linda University Medical Center and the director of fellowship and clinical operations at Riverside University Health System. Dr. Sandhu is also a member of the American College of Rheumatology’s Communications and Marketing Committee.