6 months ago, I was diagnosed with Severe Unipolar Depression. It's been an intensely difficult time of my life but with the help of family, friends and trained professionals I'm on track to getting back to leading a normal life and I wanted to share with you the 10 most important lessons and tools I've learnt along my journey to recovery. This is a very personal post to me, but if it helps someone, somewhere in their fight against depression then it's been worth writing it.
1: Taking Ownership
This is, without a doubt, the most important step in the journey to beat depression. Think of it as the garage you take your broken car to for repair and everything else listed in this post are the tools used to fix the car. You are the mechanic.
The body is the single most valuable thing we'll ever own and we've become accustomed to passing responsibility for our health over to our doctor, who after a quick consultation, makes a snap diagnosis and away with go with a handful of pills. Doctors are highly stressed, time poor and incentivised by the pharmaceutical industry so we really can't blame them for not taking hours to listen to our troubles and come up with a well researched, personalised health plan.
At the beginning of my illness I made the decision to take control of it and use all the tools I could find to overcome it. In my first CBT session with my psychologist, I outlined my 5 pillar strategy for recovery as our first topic for discussion.
I believe that if you truly want to heal yourself, whether it's a mental disorder such as depression, or something more biological such as cancer, the first step is to take ownership of both the symptoms and the cause.
If there's one tool that has been more powerful and profound than anything else I've used along my journey, it's meditation. Whilst the claims for this ancient form of brain training range from reducing stress and anxiety through to improving sex life or reaching enlightenment, taking 20 minutes of my day to quieten and focus the mind has fundamentally shifted my thought patterns, boosted my energy levels, helped control my emotional swings and taken my athletic performance to the next level.
There are a number of great meditation apps available which make it really easy to begin incorporating meditation as an essential part of your daily routine. Personally I use Headspace , a guided meditation program, but I've heard great things about Ziva as well. Check out these podcasts by two of the leading lights in modern meditation for some insights and advice into how it can change your life: Andy Puddicome and Emily Fletcher
3: Realising it's a journey, not a destination
Along my road to recovery I've had great days, I've had average days and I've most certainly had bad days. The thing I've learnt is to remember that it's the journey that counts, rather than the destination and to learn to accept the bad days for exactly what they are: just another step along the journey.
I think of it like the weather. We all enjoy those beautiful, warm, sunny days. We have more energy, feel happier and life is generally better. But the rainy, cold, windy days when we want to cozy up in bed are just as important. The rain brings the essential life giving water, the cold signals the end of the growing season and the start of the next and the wind clears away what's been before, allowing for the new to arrive. And without the bad weather, we'd soon take those warm, sunny days for granted.
There's no doubt that exercise is good for the body, mind and soul. I've always been active, participating in many sports with cycling being my first love, and I notice that when I go for periods of time without doing something that raises my heart rate, my mental and physical health definitely takes a downward turn.
Whilst it'd be wrong to say that running a Marathon is the cure to depression, getting a little exercise in your routine really can help. A gentle 20 minute walk around the park can stimulate a number of chemical releases in the brain and helps break down the walls of the mental prison that we sometimes build around ourselves. Setting goals and challenges and sticking to a strict training routine and achieving those goals has really helped some people in the past, and I'm one of them.
I'm currently training for a number of extremely challenging events and the structured training plan, the exercise itself and the sense of achievement from completing something outside of my comfort zone has played a huge role in my recovery.
5: You are what you eat
I believe that the food we put into our mouths has a greater affect over our health than anything else. Our daily decisions on what to eat, and perhaps equally importantly, what not to eat, have wide reaching and long term impacts on our health.
There is a healthy body of evidence that inflammation can play a major role in depression, which may be an evolutionary protection against disease, so it figures that a diet that's high in anti-inflammatory foods may be beneficial to those suffering from mental health illness. Which diet is highest in anti-inflammatory foods? A whole food plant based diet.
This is the diet that I eat, mostly (I occasionally have honey), and was a decision I came to for both health reasons and also so I can be true to myself and my desire to care for the environment. There's an amazing online resource I use; NutritionFacts which is unbiased, independently funded and free from the influence of the food & pharmaceutical industries.
This is an interesting one. The power of gratitude and being thankful for the things in our lives has been proven to have a beneficial effect on our mental and physical health as well as our social and athletic abilities and can have a very meaning impact on the quality of our outlook on life. There's a great article here about the power of gratitude.
I take time, after my daily morning meditation, to give thanks for 3 things for that day. What I'm grateful for doesn't matter, it's more the process itself that's effective. I've given thanks for my health, for the good weather, for having a caring and supportive network family and friends, for being able to ride a bike, for hearing birdsong when I wake up in the morning. You get the idea.
7: Talk about it
They say that a problem shared is a problem halved but until very recently, mental health was something that no one really wanted to talk about. British stiff upper lips, macho men telling us to 'harden the f&^% up' and the continuing stigma surrounding mental health have ensured that it's something that people who suffer find very difficult to talk about, often suffering in silence until they can take it no more and commit suicide.
One of the best things I did, and certainly the catalyst to my recovery, was 'coming out' and telling the world. I did it from the virtual safety of behind a keyboard and announced to the world via Facebook (is there any other way to tell people things these days?). What followed truly shocked me. I received hundreds of messages, both public and private, from people sharing their own stories of illness, struggle and support. Knowing that I wasn't alone in my group of friends in suffering from depression really helped. I've been very open in talking about my illness and have been interviewed for several articles about depression and mental health in the hospitality industry.
8: Digital Detox
This is something I often struggle with, as I think most of us do, but when I manage to disconnect from the matrix, I'm much happier for it.
Social Media and our global digital lifestyle is one of the most anti-social things in modern society. We've become so addicted to our phones and the micro hit of dopamine that our brain releases when we get a new message/email/tweet/like that we disconnect from the real world around us and fall into a digital world staring up at us from our hands.
One of my favourite things about a 6+ hour bike ride is disconnecting from the digital world and immersing myself in the moment, enjoying the environment around me, the wind in my (long lost) hair and conversations with people who share my love of cycling. I've begun getting into the habit of leaving my phone at home when I go running or for a walk. It really is quite liberating and I spend more time appreciating the beauty and detail in the area around my home, noticing things that I've never taken the time to notice before.
Once you've finished this post, close the laptop, disconnect from social media, put the phone down and go and talk to someone. Try and limit yourself to 1 hour of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram a day. Turn off the notifications on your phone. Check your emails twice daily instead of every 5 minutes. Leave your phone in your pocket or bag instead of putting it on the table at dinner. Go out for a walk and leave your phone behind. You'll find yourself happier, more productive and with a better group of friends.
I've long been one to neglect sleep. Flying around the world in my role as a global whiskey ambassador meant that sleep always came second to work and travel. I'd grab it where I could, I mastered sleeping in taxis, struggled on planes and usually managed a few hours in whatever random hotel room I was staying in. There was no routine, no solid 8 hours and plenty of jet lag. Even when I wasn't travelling, I never really focused on sleep. Like most people I'd fiddle around on the internet, watch TV or watch YouTube videos on my phone until I was suitably bored. It would be fair to say that there was no quality to my sleep.
Recently I've started to change this. I've started going into the bedroom an hour before I plan to sleep, spending that time creating a sleep ritual which involves reading by candlelight, focusing on breathing and reflecting on my day. I've banned all electronics from the bedroom, except for a clock, and have embraced my bedroom as a temple of sleep and recovery.
I am sleeping better, have more energy, enjoying better dreams and am reading more than ever. Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, insists we need a sleep revolution and I certainly agree with her.
10: Be kind to yourself
It's all too easy to be hard on yourself and I definitely struggle to be kind to myself. I often blame myself for my illness and the things that naturally don't go the way we expect in life.
With the help of some very special friends (you know who you are) I'm learning to show myself more love, recognise the things I'm successful at and remind myself that I'm a good person, with a kind heart and a lot of love to give.
So that's the 10 most important lessons and tools I've used to overcome my illness. If you suffer from mental health issues, struggle with stress or know someone who does I hope that there might be something that is of help to you.
If you'd reached this far, I'd really love to hear from you and what has worked for you, what you've struggled with and how you've got yourself back onto the path to recovery.