Loneliness, Depression: Change Your Environment

We’re down for a reason. Something happened. Lost a job, a friend, a loved one. Hit a car, got a parking ticket, lost a business deal, kids are misbehaving. Pulled a tendon, out of gym action, eating junk, getting fat.

When someone is sad, it’s natural to ask, what happened? What’s making you sad? It’s not natural to immediately prescribe antidepressants because his brain is depleted of serotonin (the hormone that affects mood; the more serotonin one has, the happier one is) and he needs medication to get his happy hormones back up again.

The irony is today, when someone is depressed and consults a doctor, the doctor is quick to diagnose him with a chemical or psychological problem and immediately prescribes a host of medication to replenish depleting or balance excessive hormones in the brain. Now this begets the big question… Why? Why so quick to prescribe medication for a non-medical problem? Why isn’t the first natural reaction to ask, what happened? What’s making you depressed?

Circle of Life: What goes up must come down

The first time I inked myself (another way of saying I got myself a tattoo), it was a symbol of the Japanese circle of life. I have no idea why I chose that design, I think I liked it for its simplicity. Now I know it’s probably not coincidental I chose that design. I do believe our lives are cyclical - what goes up must come down - it’s human nature, it’s the way of life.

My very first tattoo acquired in Florence, Italy. I chose this design which symbolizes the Japanese zen circle of life

My very first tattoo acquired in Florence, Italy. I chose this design which symbolizes the Japanese zen circle of life

American author, podcaster, entrepreneur, and startup investor Tim Ferriss talks about this too. He says that energy and interest are cyclical. It’s not realistic to sustain periods of high-output all the time. We exhibit alternating periods of high-output and low-output, the latter being a natural process of fatigue during which we regenerate and replenish our depleted neurotransmitters. In a brief nutshell, neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in our brain which sends signals and messages from cell to organ to trigger actions and behaviors. Simply put, neurotransmitters are cells that travel on the highway of our brain to enable us to function day-to-day.

Sometimes the symptoms of depression where you feel down, negative, isolated, alone, lacking zeal and drive - these symptoms may just reflect your body undergoing a routine maintenance (remember we mentioned earlier that we can’t sustain high output all the time; we need downtime to recover). Fixating on the symptoms as “depression” becomes self-fulfilling and can lead to a downward spiral. Don’t jump to conclusions. Having recurring down cycles is natural.

Boost those happy hormones

A. Food to eat

Serotonin affects our sleep, memory, appetite, and mood. Because it affects how upbeat or downbeat our mood is, serotonin is commonly known as the happy hormone.

Our gut, in response to the food we eat, produces 90% of the serotonin in our bodies.

Here’s how it works (if you truly wanna geek out on this serotonin business). Serotonin isn’t found in foods. Serotonin is produced by an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is found in foods rich in protein, but eating protein foods rich in tryptophan doesn’t release tryptophan in the bloodstream to produce serotonin. Tryptophan needs the presence of insulin to do so. And in order for insulin to be present, carbs is needed. This is because the ingestion of carbs causes the body to release insulin, which removes all amino acids except tryptophan from your blood. That means that tryptophan has no competition and can enter the brain easily, boosting serotonin levels. Thus when you mix high-tryptophan foods with carbs, you might get a serotonin boost.

In a nutshell:

Tryptophan (found in protein) + Carbs → Insulin release → Removal of amino acids except tryptophan → Tryptophan remains in blood → Serotonin boost

Foods high in tryptophan: Salmon and tuna, tempeh, beans, lentils, spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables, pumpkin and chia seeds, and nuts.

Foods high in simple carbohydrates: Pastas, potatoes, bread, pastries. While simple carbs are a quick remedy to increase happy vibes in thirty minutes or less, simple carbs are addictive and causes high blood sugar levels which over time could contribute to memory problems.

Foods containing complex carbohydrates are better recommended to boost serotonin levels (so as not to cause spikes in blood sugar levels). These include sweet potatoes, apples, blueberries, carrots, and garbanzo beans.

It’s difficult to acquire sufficient nutrients from the foods we eat, thus supplementing them in the form of vitamins are recommended. Vitamins B6 and B12 can help to support healthy serotonin levels.

B. Activities to do

One of the most effective ways to boost serotonin levels in our brain is through physical exercise. Multiple research studies have demonstrated that exercise boosts serotonin levels almost as effectively as serotonin-enhancing medications do.

This explains why I have an undeniable need to workout every single day, failing which I am no good to nobody - I get angsty, unreasonable and simply besides myself without working out and releasing those serotonin.

In a fascinating study by Princeton professors Alan Krueger and Daniel Kahneman in which Dr Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics, it was found that perhaps the best indicator of happiness was the frequency of eating with family and friends.

What this means is, if you have to choose one activity to produce an emotional boost, start eating with those who make you smile more.

In the throes of depression, when all is lost and you sink into a black hole of utter despair and don’t know what you could do, pick up the phone, call a family member or friend and ask, can we eat together?

This will not only ensure you get food in your body to perk your serotonin levels but also ensure you physically move your body and change your emotions from one of despair to possibly light.

Reality Bites

Is it possible for a person deep in the throes of depression to pick himself up and make little adjustments to turn his life around?

I’m aware, even as I’m writing this, that as a non-depressive myself (though I get down and sad from time to time), I can never understand the depth, width and breath, and more so, the grip which depression has on its sufferers, where the simplest of tasks feels heavyweight and oh so burdensome.

He wakes up and doesn’t want food, much less to think what can I eat to boost my happy hormones?

He barely slept despite being in bed for many hours because he’s been tormented by demons in his head which tells him he is unworthy, unloved, incapable of anything good.

His body is constantly tired and he could hardly fathom the idea of going for a walk, much less a run or to the gym.

He walks to the subway, squeezes in between throngs of people making a beeline for the downtown line, could hardly breathe, and stands for 45 mins in the subway till he gets off at his stop.

He walks to the office, dreading the work that awaits him and the crunched deadline from unreasonable and obsessive clients.

He turns on the computer. It takes a long time to load up. He opens his email. Too many unread emails promoting things he doesn’t need, a string of emails keeping him in the loop of current projects, a handful of emails that actually need his urgent attention. He takes the whole morning sieving through his emails.

He tries to remind himself, this job isn’t bad - at least I have one! And it pays the bills, my family needs this.

He finishes a routine day at work, walks to the subway, squeezes in between throngs of people making a beeline for the uptown line, could hardly breathe, and stands for 45 mins in the subway till he gets off at his stop.

He walks home, by passing piles of garbage and homeless encampments and smell of urine on the sidewalks.

He gets home, his wife barely acknowledging his presence, she tends to the kids, the kids are screaming, he eats his dinner and swallows a big lump in his throat.

He hates his life.

This might sound dreary but for many, this is a reality that plays over and over in their lives, day in and day out.

In a situation like this, how does he find the mental space to make decisions to change the food he eats, the activities he does?

The fact is, he has little control of these. It seems like life holds him by the reins, he’s a captive without a say or choice, he goes as life leads him.

In this case, what can he do to lift himself out of his situation?

I’ve been speaking to various people who have undergone depression on their coping strategies when terrors of the night have its strongest grip on them, especially when one goes through major transitions in life including a divorce, a break up, a change of career.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

CJ’s (name has been changed to protect identity) husband of seven years is 14 years older than she is, past mid life and has been feeling insecure about his receding hairline, expanding waistline, and his general appeal factor. Instead of voicing his insecurity to his wife and working through it with her, he turned to other women and cheated on her several times. CJ still loves her husband; she just couldn’t understand why he’d throw in the towel on their marriage without making an effort to navigate the deep issues surrounding their differences and was so quick to turn to temporary releases to satisfy his needs. He is extremely wealthy, influential, charming and provided her with a life of luxury she never had, yet the material lavish could not replace the deep void and extreme loneliness she felt in the marriage. There had been times she’d cry herself to sleep as her husband lay next to her, feeling lonelier with him beside her than if she’d been alone. She realized she needed to leave the marriage. She moved out of their mansion-like home, found herself a tiny apartment and started afresh, except it wasn’t easy. There were days of deep anxiety which paralyzed and constricted her to bed. When that happens, she’d take a deep breath, thank the universe she was alive and had breath, look herself in the mirror, and talked kindly to herself. She knew she needed to love herself because no one else would if she didn’t. If the dark thoughts persevered, she’d get dressed and walk around the block - a strategy that always worked in lifting her spirits.

There’s something very therapeutic about movement - literally moving from one position to another, from one spot to another. It is in motion that I find the healing I need for myself, says CJ.

C. Change your environment

Motivational speaker and author Tony Robbins has a lot to say about changing one’s emotions through motion. How do you reset your emotions? The secret is in moving your body. Emotion is created by motion. In other words, emotions are linked to movement in our bodies. By changing your posture or body language, you are sending signals to your brain to change the way you feel.

2017 through to 2018 saw me at the bottom of my barrel as I struggled in my marriage and lost my sense of worth when I couldn’t produce any written works. I did everything I could to feel better - watched inspiring films, listened to great music, travelled to new places - all in a bid to nourish my depleted soul, but I was left feeling emptier than when I started. I tried to reach out and make new friends as I was feeling isolated but failed to make meaningful connections. The rift between my husband I widened as we both dealt with the same issue of isolation and neither of us were able to help each other. Our families were tens of thousands of miles away.

Finally we bought air tickets and flew home to be with our family and friends. We spent four weeks, during which time we each soaked in the love, warmth and generosity afforded by our family and friends which watered our parched inner souls.

I learnt something from this period:

1) Desperation propels actions: Only when we are truly desperate do we seek actions to change our situations.

2) Change your environment: The only way to change our circumstances is to change our environment, and the only way to change our environment is to change our physical location - in this case we moved from San Francisco to Singapore (though for a short 4 weeks).

3) Move: If changing your environment is not possible, simply move your body from one position or location to another. I’m about to share another vulnerable incident which highlights how very lonely and isolated I feel deep in my soul, despite being surrounded by family and friends who love me dearly, and a host of activities I participate in on a daily basis.

Dec 2018, Singapore. I woke up one evening from a much needed nap (I hadn’t been sleeping well the few nights prior) surrounded by a deep feeling of despair. My soul felt empty. I was alone, there was nobody home. I knew I had to do something or I’d sink deeper and cry endlessly. I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to heal my soul. I also knew that the only way to help myself at that moment was not to be alone, but to be surrounded by familiar faces. So I got dressed and walked to the hair salon where I knew most of the hairdressers were culturally similar to me and I would feel very much at home in their presence, conversing with them or simply listening to their conversations among each other and with their clients in the hair salon. I went to get my hair done although I didn’t need it; I did that because I desperately needed to be in the company of familiar faces and language so that I felt belonged and not isolated.

Behind these eyes and new hairdo lies a desperately lonely soul

Behind these eyes and new hairdo lies a desperately lonely soul

That day I put into practice what Tony Robbins said about changing our emotions through motion, and benefited tremendously from that application.  

Now whenever I feel isolated or down, I’d literally move my body from the position I was in - if I was in bed I’d get up and walk to the living room; if I was in the living room I’d get dressed, get in my car and drive somewhere - I simply had to move my body so that I move myself out of the existing depressing environment into an environment of motion and feel better when I do.

Change is a choice

What if you’re in a desperate situation and you feel trapped and can’t change your situation? Remember, you’re never trapped, you can change your situation, and yes, you always have a choice.

What if you were married and can’t leave? I’m not advocating for separation or divorce, but if you have to, you can leave, you have a choice.

What if you’re afraid of the uncertainty? It is scary, but you have a choice.

What if I never meet my next soul mate? You will.

What if I never could love again? You will. You think you will never love again, but you will.

When you hit rock bottom or you find yourself in a situation where you’re desperately gasping for a molecule of air, be comforted - change is imminent and redemption is just round the corner.

This is not an effort to oversimplify the avenues to take to battle depression, these are suggestions and are written to shed light on possible turnarounds when we view our lives from a narrow lens of doom and despair. There is always light, change is always possible, and there is always redemption, but it takes desperation and willingness to make that change.