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Six (Free) Lifestyle Factors to Feeling Energized Again

Do you find yourself feeling sluggish and unenthusiastic about getting out of bed in the morning? Do you go through the motions during the day wondering ‘why do I feel so tired, numb, and unhappy all the time?’

You’re not alone. Many people feel the same way, and it’s not a great wonder why.

The way we live in modern, fast-paced, technologically advanced societies is drastically far removed from how we were adapted to live.

One of my favorite psychological researchers whose work I like to share with my clients is Dr. Stephen Ilardi out of KU. Dr. Ilardi wondered if the kind of chronic depression and anxiety that plague modern societies is the result of innate human tendencies universal to all of us, or a ‘disease of civilization’ unique to the conditions of modern living, much like other such diseases including diabetes. He discusses his work further in his (well-worth the watch) TED talk, “Depression is a Disease of Civilization” as well as his book, The Depression Cure.

To test his hypothesis, Ilardi studied the lifestyles of hunter-gatherer peoples who live the way humans did for the overwhelming majority of our existence on earth, from our evolution as a species (roughly 2 million years ago for hominids generally and 300,000 years ago for modern humans) until the Agricultural Revolution began gradually making us sedentary, starting only around 11,000 BC.

To his surprise, Dr. Ilardi found that chronic depression and anxiety do not plague hunter-gatherer peoples and that depression is indeed a ‘disease of civilization.’ Common symptoms of major depressive disorder were essentially unheard of among the hunter-gatherers studied and interviewed. Of course, situational depression and anxiety are universal – it is quite natural and understandable to be depressed when a loved one passes, for instance, or to be anxious when facing a threat, whether in the form of a lion or tiger in our path for hunter-gatherers, or a big looming deadline for we city-dwellers.

But situational depression or anxiety generally passes with time, even in intense cases. Chronic, persistent, or overwhelming depression or anxiety, on the other hand, can feel like they have a death-grip on us that just won’t let go, over several months, years, or even decades.

Studying hunter-gatherer peoples, Dr. Ilardi was able to isolate six lifestyle factors that protected them from chronic depression and anxiety. The tips are highly practical and, best of all, they’re free or extremely cheap (especially compared to pharmaceuticals). Many of my clients and friends who I’ve shared these tips with have found it helpful just to keep this list in mind on a day-to-day basis and be mindful of the extent to which they’ve gotten their ‘dosage’, if you will, of each on a given day. Here they are:

1. Sunlight. Our brain and optical system are designed to see the sun. It’s no great wonder that depression tends to run rampant in the winter with shorter days, and in areas with high amounts of fog and cloud coverage. Going out for a morning walk or run can go a shockingly long way towards making us feel better, and re-setting our biological clock so that we’re tired at night when we want to go to bed, bringing me to the next element…

2. Sleep. For the overwhelming majority of people, we really need 7-8 hours. 6 can sometimes be sufficient. Any lower than that, and you’re really setting yourself up for exhaustion, illness, low energy, and poor mood, unless you’re in a small fraction of people with a genetic mutation optimizing you for only a few hours of sleep per night (in which case I envy you!)

3. Social Interaction. Do you have people in your life you feel you can be yourself around, and who in turn can be themselves around you? Do you like (or even love) and embrace the wholeness of each other for who you really are? If you do, you know it’s medicine for the soul, and if you don’t, nothing will make you feel better. Find your tribe. People tend to connect over i) shared interests and ii) shared experiences. If you don’t have people right now who you feel this way about and have a history of shared experiences with, connect with those with shared interests and those experiences will tend to happen naturally over time.

4. Purposeful (Anti-Ruminative) Activity. One of the key factors of depression is rumination, the tendency to think obsessively about things that are troubling us or making us feel bad. The antidote is staying busy with things you enjoy and take your mind off such troubles. Hobbies are great for this (as well as a great way to connect with others, per Factor #3 above), as is connecting with others through exercise, leading me to the next factor.

5. Exercise. No medicine for depression has ever been found as effective as exercise. Exerting ourselves and elevating our heart rate creates a free pathway for serotonin to flood the brain with feel-good chemicals (anyone who has ever felt “runner’s high” knows what I’m talking about). Alternating weight-training and cardio sessions is a great idea, as is joining a recreational sports league to connect with others.

6. Nutrition, especially Omega-3 Fatty Acids. What we eat has an outsized impact on how we feel, both physically and mentally. Unfortunately, advertising and the pace of modern life have rendered high-salt, high-sugar, low-nutrient fast-food and junk-food a staple of the American diet, and of diets across the developed world. Not only does it make us sick in our bodies, but it often also leads to decreased focus and mood and a persistent feeling of sluggishness. Being mindful of your protein intake, vitamins and nutrients in the form of natural foods (especially vegetables, fruit, and nuts), and Omega-3 fatty acids (often in the form of fish or leafy greens) goes a long way towards a sound mind and healthy body.

I hope you find this list as helpful as many of my friends, clients, and I myself have! If you could use a helping hand in ensuring these habits become a significant part of your daily life, and to process and overcome obstacles to making it so, counseling may be a great option.

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