Can You Prevent Depression Through Connection?

7 min read

I’m always on the lookout for new studies that relate to ‘The Courage of Connection’—studies that can help individuals on their journey to take care of their mental health, reduce feelings of depression, and develop stronger connections with those around them.

One new study released last month caught my attention because it focused on the connection between depression and healthy habits. The study showed that if people were able to maintain a broad range of healthy habits, like getting a good amount of sleep or spending time with others, they were significantly less likely to experience episodes of depression. The seven habits that researchers identified, in no particular order, are:

  1. Moderate alcohol consumption
  2. Healthy diet
  3. Never smoking
  4. Healthy sleep
  5. Regular physical activity
  6. Low-to-moderate sedentary behavior
  7. Frequent social connection

Recently researchers made a significant discovery: Those who adhered to five or more of these seven “healthy habits” experienced a remarkable 57% reduction in the risk of depression. Initially, I found this report incredibly inspiring after having personally witnessed the transformative impact of lifestyle changes on mental health and well-being. However, with further contemplation, it struck me how individuals currently suffering from depression might react to the study’s findings. When depression has such a heavy burden, the mere act of getting out of bed can be an immense challenge, let alone preparing a nourishing meal or motivating yourself to exercise. Hence, it occurred to me that providing a pragmatic approach, with achievable steps inspired by this research, could offer a glimmer of hope for those in the middle of an episode of depression. As a psychiatrist, I firmly advocate for the efficacy of therapy and, when necessary, medication. Yet the real power lies in combining these modalities with some number of the study’s healthy habits.

Rank What’s Possible Given Your Unique Situation

To start, I recommend that people rank the seven healthy habits in order of feasibility in their life. For example, if you are a new parent, it’s very unlikely you are going to get healthy sleep in the near future, so it is probably best not to prioritize that one immediately. When creating your ranking, for many people, Maslow’s Hierarchy of human needs (which starts at critical physiological needs like food and clothing, up to safety, belonging and love, esteem, cognitive, esthetic, self-actuation and transcendence) will reign. If you are not sleeping or eating well, those will probably take precedence given their necessity for life. For those that have prominent drug, alcohol or tobacco use in their lives, those vices will need to be addressed earlier on in order to have improved sleep, exercise and healthy social interaction later.

Identify the “Small Wins” That Make a Big Difference

Once your list is created, how can you achieve small wins for the top items on your list? I want to stress that it is important to not overly commit to anything, especially if you are in a hectic period of your life. I recommend that people identify a life change that is small and manageable, which will then impart more immediate, sustained success.

If your plan for increasing physical activity is one hour a day of exercise, that may be totally impractical with your current schedule. Many people can be daunted by “exercise” in the punitive sense, so come up with something that gets you moving that isn’t as drastic as going for a two-mile run or lifting weights. Prosocial and low impact hobbies like gardening, bowling, grabbing coffee and walking with a friend can really help your mental health and get you moving.

The ideal scenario of eight hours of sleep is going to be almost impossible for a new parent. Instead, try to get out of the house once in a while for a weekly stroller walk with a friend, which would hit on both “physical activity” and “social connection”. Or, if you feel like your life is too busy and overwhelming already, try to reduce something that isn’t necessarily adding value to your life, like screen time. If you can take the 15 minutes a day that you’d typically spend scrolling on social media, to instead go for a walk or cook a healthy meal, that can make a big difference in your mental health. You can then build off of these efforts and make new, long-term routines, like starting to take a 30-minute walk with friends a few times a week.

Test It Out

Once you have your ranking complete based on your life, start hitting one at a time. I suggest a one-month “test” with the highest one or two things you want to achieve on your personalized feasibility scale. Again, keep in mind the “small wins” that will lead to bigger ones later on. Give yourself a daily “pulse check” ranking your feelings from 1-10, with 10 being the most happy. When you actively pursue your one or two healthier habits a day, how do you feel? Write down your happiness ranking in a journal to see which activities make the biggest difference on your mood.

Give Yourself Grace and Get Help If You Need It

Dealing with depression is often a lifelong, difficult effort. Just by reading this post or looking into the study I referenced, you are actively looking out for yourself and trying to get better. As you start feeling more overwhelmed, stressed, or alone, it is a good idea to put a plan in place to preventatively increase some of the healthy activity items on the list, while closely monitoring your sleeping and eating habits. If you are struggling with where to start on getting better or even completing this ranking, talk to a therapist. They can work on a personalized plan with you and suggest some lifestyle changes that I didn’t have a chance to cover here.

The Courage of Connection

Lastly, since this column is entitled “The Courage of Connection,” I do have to stress the impact that frequent social connection can have on feelings of depression. Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory that pointed out just how connected loneliness and isolation are to our overall health. It said, “a review of 63 studies concluded that loneliness and social isolation among children and adolescents increase the risk of depression and anxiety and that this risk remained high even up to nine years later.” Additionally, the advisory stated that, “social connection also seems to protect against depression even in people with a higher probability of developing the condition. For example, frequently confiding in others is associated with up to 15 percent reduced odds of developing depression among people who are already at higher risk due to their history of traumatic or otherwise adverse life experiences.”

Depression Essential Reads

If this healthy habits list looks too daunting, even after reviewing my advice on how to tackle it in little pieces, reach out to someone for help, advice, or just some basic social interaction. That could be a friend, family member, or a therapist. We weren’t meant to go through life alone, and connecting with others is an incredibly powerful defense against feelings of depression and one of the healthiest habits you can cultivate.

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