Stephen Ilardi is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas. The 20 minute video below presents an interesting perspective on depression. The main emphasis is on how our modern sedentary lifestyle is incompatible with good mental health.

For what might appear to be a negative subject it is actually very enlightening and even uplifting!

Professor Illardi’s video presents a strong case for re-evaluating how we manage our lives. In particular I will highlight the following observations:

  • The primary driver for much depression appears to be the brain’s runaway stress response. This is useful in the short term to protect us against physical danger (the so called fight or flight response). However, in the long term this leads to chronic stress and a toxic inflammatory effect on the brain.
  • We were never designed for the sedentary indoor, socially isolated , fast-food-laden-sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life. This has led to the so-called ‘diseases of civilisation’ that include diabetes, asthma, allergies, obesity, many forms of cancer and depression.

Further evidence comes from how radically life has changed over the last 200 years from being primarily an agricultural, hunter-gatherer existence (for thousands of years) to the Industrial Age (the last 200 years)  and then what is now called the Information Age (in the last 50 years).

There is thus a profound mismatch between the genes we are carrying, the bodies they are creating and the life style we are living. (For more on this see Harnessing the Power of Technology Part 1 and Part 2).

Professor Ilardi’s focus is on those conditions that fall outside of the remit of Major Depressive Disorder, but are clearly still very disabling for the individual.
As we have previously mentioned antidepressant use has increased dramatically over the last few decades, but this has had little effect on levels of unhappiness. (See Why Has There Been a 400% Increase in the Prescribing of Antidepressants? and Is the Rate of Depression Increasing or Not?)

The talk focuses on 6 main ways to combat depressive thinking:

1. The power of regular exercise.
We have previously discussed the powerful antidepressant effects of exercise that are greater than any medication ever invented. (See How Do I Cope with Stress in My Life? Part 4).
Professor Ilardi proposes that the reason we struggle with exercise is that we have lost the connection between exercise and the purposes we are trying to achieve. Exercise becomes another chore that we feel we have to or ought to do. However, just regular brisk walking can be of enormous benefit.

2. The right balance of essential fatty acids.
The brain is made up of as much as 60% of fat. Essential fatty acids are vital for optimum health. In particular greater anti-inflammatory Omega -3s (found in grasses, plants, algae and the animals that eat them such as fish, livestock and poultry) as opposed to the pro-inflammatory Omega- 6s often found in processed foods.

3. Healthy sleep
There is no lasting benefit from burning the candle at both ends. It is vital to cultivate a tired body at the end of the day and a quiet mind. (See The Difference Between Talking to Your Heart and Listening to Your Heart).

4. The importance of sunlight or exposure to bright light.
A number of years ago I was involved in a research project interviewing a large number of people with Seasonal Depressive Disorder, or winter sadness brought about by lack of sunlight. That experience convinced me what a strong factor sunlight plays in mood stability. Particularly in regions farther away from the equator the combination of short days and long nights in winter can have a strong depressogenic effect.

5. Excessive rumination
Worry and fear are a feature of life. Terrible things can and do happen. I plan to write about this in future posts. However, even a brief superficial view of life shows that there is a lot to worry about. We live with a sense of uneasiness. Here is how the Pultzer Prize winning author Ernest Becker put it:

“I think that taking life seriously means something like this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation…. of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false.”

Professor Ilardi advocates a 3 step process of noticing worrying ruminations in the here-and-now; making a decision to shift focus and then redirecting attention elsewhere. I love the way that the Message version of the Bible illustrates this from Philippians 4:6-7

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life.”

(For more on this see Why does a Loving God allow Pain and Suffering?).

6. Social Connection.
Mother Teresa put it poignantly when she said:

The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.

And yet loneliness and isolation is one of the most endemic features of modern life. According to Professor Michael West of Lancaster University, the statistics are staggering. You are apparently more likely to die from loneliness than from smoking or obesity. The key issue in social connection is spending time with people who you love and who love you.

What changes could you make in your life in light of these observations?

It would be good to have your thoughts, comments and suggestions.