Coping with Anxiety and Depression: Eating & Sleeping

Nutrition and Diet

What you eat plays an extremely important role in how you feel, not only physically, but mentally. If you’ve ever been depressed or anxious, you’ve probably noticed that you feel like eating more or less. That’s because appetite is related to mood.

Some people find they eat to make themselves feel better, which is commonly referred to as emotional eating. For example, you might be drawn to eating more when you’re depressed because your body is low on a certain neurotransmitter (like serotonin). Or, a mechanical issue in the brain isn’t working properly, so you don’t experience feeling good, even if your body is making enough serotonin, for instance. As a result, your body tries to get this serotonin boost in other ways. But this neurochemical and others are not only brain-based. “For example, scientists were shocked to learn that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around” (Hadhazy, 2010). That means our mood is strongly influenced by what we eat, what we’re allergic to, and how well our digestive system works.

Naturally, then, if you want to cope better with depression and anxiety, you’ll want to know as much as you can about your own body and how it processes certain foods. Medical doctors, nutritionists, dietitians, naturopaths, and other professionals who specialize in the internal functions of the body can help you determine what’s healthy. Please consult with these professionals and take the following information as general information only. For more info on how to eat healthy, visit eatright.org.

When it comes to food and eating, you might be helped by thinking of food as a substance, and not just something that fills you up. Everything you eat has an effect on your body. In the food world, you have options that range from really healthy to avoid! In general, most people would benefit from a diet that is high in vegetables and protein, and low in saturated fats. If you’re feeling anxious, you would do well to cut down on caffeine, sugar, and other food that stimulates your mind and body, which is already wound up.

Also, what the food contains in terms of nutritional value also has a significant impact on your body and mood. Below are 3 results from studies discussed in Depression: The Nutrition Connection:

  • “Those given folate had significantly improved recovery, and the longer they took the folate, the better they felt” (Holford, 2003, p. 13).
  • “Many people with mental illness need more than a normal amount of vitamin B12 despite no obvious signs of deficiency such as anaemia” (Holford, 2003, p. 14).
  • “Omega-3 fats have a direct influence on serotonin status, probably by enhancing production and reception” (Holford, 2003, p. 14).

Consider consulting with a medical professional about increasing your intake of food or supplements that contain the above nutrients.

Another aspect of eating is how you eat, or your relationship to food. If you struggle with an eating disorder, you’ll want to consult with a professional. Even if you don’t, you may still find your relationship to food and eating is troublesome and contributes to depression and anxiety.

One way you can cope with this is by being mindful of eating. For instance, let’s say you’re standing in line at a café for a black coffee or herbal tea, and you spot a Cheese Danish making eyes at you from the pastry case. Your breathing increases and you feel tension mount in your body as you fight the temptation to snatch it from the shelves. You immediately imagine the tasty pleasure followed by a load of guilt and self-contempt. You then begin reprimanding yourself for having a weak will for something so trivial. Sound familiar?

Well, rather than getting caught up in the shame and blame, mindfulness could mean that you simply notice when this feeling arises and take deep breaths. You simply notice the judgmental thoughts as they come, choosing instead to be compassionate with yourself. You gently remind yourself of your health intention. When you finally get to the cash register, you might find the craving has passed. Or, if you do end up buying the pastry, there’s no productive value in beating yourself up over it. Just enjoy the Cheese Danish and remind yourself of your intention for health (recommitting to your goal).

Sleep

Sleep is almost always impacted when you feel depressed or anxious. As with eating, some people find they sleep more or less. Depression tends to make us want to sleep more, while insomnia usually pairs with anxiety, though it completely depends on the person.  This can obviously be a frustrating cycle that exacerbates other symptoms of depression and anxiety, like irritability or lack of motivation. The first step is visiting your medical professional and possibly going to a sleep clinic to be evaluated for a sleep disorder. “According to Dr. Peter Hauri, author of No More Sleepless Nights, more than one million Americans have sleep disorders” (Bloch, 2002, p. 179-180).

Sleep is a complex function necessary for our physical and emotional equilibrium. In a fast-paced society, it can be one of the first things to suffer in our daily routine. To give a little perspective on its function, sleep is a time when our brain consolidates what we’ve experienced during the day. What happened and how we feel about it gets sorted from short-term memory to long-term memory. “Researchers have also shown that after people sleep, they tend to retain information and perform better on memory tasks. Our bodies all require long periods of sleep in order to restore and rejuvenate, to grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones.” (National Sleep Foundation, 2018). Also, the amount of sleep people need varies. In general, younger people need more sleep because they’re developing quickly and acquiring many skills during the day. Yet adults still need sufficient sleep to be at their best. One of the most helpful ways to get more restful sleep is establishing a sleep schedule.

Here are a few ideas you can implement right away:

  • Get to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. This helps regulate your body’s internal clock and could help with insomnia. Ensure you are getting the right amount of sleep for your age range (See “Recommended Sleep” graphic on the National Sleep Foundation website).
  • Only use your bed for sleeping and sex. You want your body to associate sleep with your bed. Invest in a good mattress and pillow (9 or 10 years is the usual life expectancy of a mattress). Keep the room between 60 – 67 degrees.  Dust and vacuum the room often to rid of allergens. Keep the room free of clutter and other distractions. All this to say: create a space you would feel like sleeping in (National Sleep Foundation, 2018).
  • Leave an hour before bedtime to relax, which means no electronics. The type of light that emits from electronic screens prevents the release of melatonin, a naturally-occurring hormone that puts you to sleep. Make your room dark or dim before bed.
  • This is the time for your sleep ritual. You could do light stretching, meditate, listen to relaxing music or sounds, simply lie down and breathe, do progressive muscle relaxation, or visualize a peaceful or happy scene. You might also take this time to practice gratitude. Even if it was a difficult day, see if you can think of at least one thing you are grateful for. Praying or sending out healing thoughts to yourself and others could also be done during this time.
  • In addition, you could have a morning ritual. Mornings can be a very difficult time for people who are depressed or anxious. It might take every ounce of energy and willpower you have to just get out of bed. You can come up with a thought, prayer, mantra, or maybe even a visual to focus on to help you sit up in bed. Once you’re sitting up, you can do some movement, like neck rolls or shoulder rolls; then shake your hips, legs, feet, and hands to get the energy moving through your body. Ensue that what you do helps to revitalize and restore your body and mind. Consider having a comfortable mat (like a yoga mat or soft rug) that can be the first thing your feet touch when you get out of bed.

Taking care of these two basic needs—eating and sleeping—are foundational to coping with anxiety and depression. Contact us if you like to discuss anxiety counseling.

References:

Mitra Motlagh

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