Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Getting moderately happier

Call of the wild - a little time outdoors can improve both your mood and sleep patterns. Not related, I took this pic up the Orongorongo Valley (NZ) a few years ago - check out all the epiphytes hanging in this tree! Image: Louise Thomas

Life has delivered me a few sucker punches this year. So much so that I have been unusually paralysed – words not written, books half read, drawings started and not finished, exercise not taken, Sunday baking for school lunches forgotten about, etc.
In other words, a case of situational depression that probably isn’t going to go away by itself.

In desperation I went to my GP to enquire about counselling, but he wanted to put me on antidepressants – counselling was mind-blowingly expensive he informed me. Drugs were effective and cheap, and a nine-month course would have me back to my “old self” tout de suite.

Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, I’m cursed by being an atheist (no higher power to turn to), a part-time cynic (the self-help books I’ve been reading are mostly stress-inducing crap filled with unobtainable standards), and I also carry a healthy suspicion about the side-effects of long-term drug taking.

The problem with drugs is I just don’t like messing with my brain – finely-honed tool that it is. Despite wanting to flip an off switch on some of the anguish it’s causing me right now.

And the problem with counselling is I doubt another human being’s intellectual capacity to provide unique insights into my particular problems. Not that my problems are unique, far from it.

Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that my na├»ve happyish “old self” might have been part of the problem in the first place. Perhaps a return to it is not actually desirable.

Finally, I suspect that, like death and taxes, some grief in life is unavoidable.

But I’m sick of wallowing – life is too precious to waste on unhealthy self-absorption. Speaking of crap self-help books, endorsement of wallowing is just one of the reasons I think the concept of personal dairies or journaling is just over-rated introspection of the worst kind (it’s worse than the scrap-booking craze, which thankfully seems to have died down, for wasting one’s life). Not that writing isn’t cathartic – indeed there are some studies that suggest that targeted, time-limited, writing about your problems helps to objectify them and suggest solutions. It’s the reason for this blog post actually. Just don’t wallow. There’s a whole world out there way more fascinating than you are – go be in it.

I accept that I can’t change past events – I had no control over them in any case (actually a feeling of lack of control over events and other’s behaviours is an identified cause of depression – that feeling of helplessness. In most cases we can only seek to control our own responses and attitudes towards events/other people).

Being a science writer, I’ve decided to tackle my emotional problems based on actual scientific studies. After all, a few rogue studies and dishonest researchers aside, if you can’t trust peer-reviewed journals, who can you trust?

The call of the wild

Henry David Thoreau once famously wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Ignoring the fact that Thoreau was in walking distance to a village and had his laundry sent out for cleaning (he was really glamping for two years while he drafted Walden), the idea of getting back to nature to combat life’s malaise is not misplaced at all.

The quote reminds me of a study I wrote about a couple of years back, Great outdoors resets biological clocks, where researchers at the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado, showed that when exposed to natural light without the interference of artificial lights, humans’ internal biological clocks will tightly synchronise to a natural, midsummer light-dark cycle – they effectively cured insomnia by taking subjects camping for a week (no torches or smart phones allowed).[1]

So what’s a sleep study got to do with helping my situational depression? Quite a lot, as far as I’m concerned. The researchers found that in the wild, melatonin (the stuff that makes you feel sleepy) levels rise in the early evening and then taper off before a person wakes up. But in our modern world, melatonin levels tend to decrease to daytime levels about two hours after we wake up. “In other words, our biological night extends past our wake time and contributes to why many of us are at our sleepiest soon after we wake up in the morning. With exposure to natural light, that decrease in melatonin shifts to the last hour of sleep time, then brain arousal rises earlier, likely helping people feel more alert in the morning,” writes lead researcher Professor Kenneth Wright.

It has also been well established that exposure to sunlight increases serotonin levels, which could make you happier. A bit of a turn outside is usually recommended for those suffering from SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder – but recommending a brisk walk may seem shallow in the face of over-whelming anxiety and would hardly fill the pages of a self-help book would it?

Frankly, I could do with feeling more alert, getting some better quality sleep, and a bit of sunlight. In practice, it’s midwinter here in New Zealand. Camping is definitely out – even if I knew where the tent I haven’t seen for four years was. But is there a modified form?

I’ll go for a trot along the beach and have a think about it. See if I can’t come up with a solution.

Funny update: On the way out to find myself, I was pulled over by the local constabulary at 7.45am in the morning on some deserted back streets for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign on a clear-visibility T intersection. They must have been bored staking out the intersection, I couldn’t even imagine what they were pulling me over for – I drive like a deferential Nana. I was given a $150 fine and 25 demerit points on my licence (my first ever in over 30 years of driving). Who said the universe doesn’t have a perverse sense of humour. I’m too scared to leave the house now.

I’ll try something else and report back – perhaps a few Terry Pratchett books or Monty Python for a bit of laughter therapy in the safety of my lounge.

#situational depression, #making happiness

[1] K.P. Wright et al. (2013). Entrainment of the human circadian clock to the natural light-dark cycle. Current Biology. Published online August 1, 2013. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.039. Print edition: September 7, 2013; Vol.184 #5 (p. 10)