[Disclaimer – I am not a doctor and I don’t pretend to play one on the internet, speak with a medical or psychiatric professional if you need help.]
Do you suffer from depression or anxiety? Do you ever feel like there is no hope, like you’re trapped? Like it’s hard to be brave and struggle through moment to moment?
I’ve felt that way too. I know how bad it feels.
Depression and anxiety are things I have dealt with in my own life, spent lots of time researching, and battled back from.
If you struggle with depression or anxiety, you may benefit from reading this and realize that there is hope and there is a path forward that can lead you to a happy and more fulfilled life.
The following is an actual response I wrote to a listener email (which has been edited for readability and to preserve their privacy, and their name has been changed) – but this is a topic that I deeply care about, and something that I felt really needed to be shared more broadly with the world.
Without further adieu, here’s the email:
“James - thanks so much for writing in. I'm so glad that you wrote to me and I really hope that I can be helpful to you. I've dealt with depression and anxiety in my own life and I know what the struggle is like. Sometimes its hardest to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you're in the midst of it, but know that you can literally change the physical structure of your brain, overcome your struggles, and live a happy and productive life.
I'm going to give you A LOT of resources in this email - but these are all pieces of the puzzle that can help you.
Depression & Your Brain
Before we get into the specific tactics of dealing with your question about how to stay motivated and achieve things while dealing with depression, lets discuss depression broadly and some ways to think about it.
I would recommend several interviews we've done on the show around the core concept that science shows that you can “rewire” and change the physical structure of your brain to pull yourself out of depression or anxiety.
First, I would recommend the interview we did with Dr. Alex Korb, a UCLA neuroscientist who recently wrote a book on reversing the course of depression.
That interview is called “How to Break Free from Depression & Anxiety by Changing Your Brain Chemistry” and in it we discuss the following (among many other things):
- How people (like you and me) can get stuck in a loop of anxiety or depression
- How to strengthen and grow new neurons to literally change the structure of your brain
- Why nothing is wrong with your brain when you get stuck in a loop of depression or anxiety
This means that – no matter what – there is always hope – there is always a path forward, a way through the darkness. There’s nothing wrong with you if you feel depressed or anxious, and you can get to a place where you feel better.
The second interview I would recommend checking out is the amazing conversation we had with psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, the author of Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, and several other books. Rick has written extensively about “neuroplasticity” and the science behind how you can change the physical structure of your brain with your thoughts.
In that conversation, we discuss:
- How your thoughts change the physical structure of your brain
- How your brain’s 5 core survival strategies create suffering in your life
- How reality is continually constructed by the underlying hardware of the brain
- How to disengage from stress and suffering
It’s not an accident that I interviewed Dr. Korb and Dr. Hanson – I specifically sought them out because their research was valuable and helpful to me in dealing with some of my own struggles.
Both of them provide the necessary backdrop to understand that it is possible, and demonstrated in scientific research, as well as by the personal experience of myself and many others, to overcome the struggles of anxiety and depression, to build a happy life, to see the sun peeking through the clouds, and live the life you want to live.
Mind Body Interventions To Prevent Depression & Anxiety
Now lets look concretely at some of the mind-body interventions that you can implement to change your brain chemistry, physiology, and ultimately the structure of your brain to make yourself happier and to chip away and the depression and anxiety looming in your life.
What do I mean by mind-body interventions? It sounds complex, but they are very simple and easy to do.
Let’s start with another one of my favorite interviews that I’ve done recently – The Paradox of Happiness with Tal Ben Shahar.
Tal Ben Shahar is a badass. He taught the most popular class in Harvard’s history (which was about happiness) and is the author of several books including Choose The Life You Want, The Pursuit of Perfect and Happier (among others).
In my interview with Tal – we went deep on several of these “mind-body interventions” that can boost happiness and combat depression and anxiety - these sound really simple but research shows them to be as effective if not more effective than antidepressants – specifically the following activities:
- Breathing & Breath Work
Yes those all sound super simple and obvious - and yes they work amazingly well. Daily cardio for me was one of the single biggest factors for breaking myself out of anxiety and depression.
Let’s discuss each briefly and share some specifics:
The incredible power of exercise is not in improving your physical health – but in improving your mental health. There was a study of over a million people that demonstrated the powerful effect of cardio on reducing depression (see here and here) and meta studies also demonstrate the same conclusion. Find a way to work 30 minutes of cardio in your day, several days per week. For me, I literally watch YouTube videos on my iPad while doing stationary bike – its super easy to do! Most of the research supports cardio (as opposed to strength training) as the ideal method of exercise for improved mental health.
Breathing & Breath Work
This is a fascinating field and one with some really promising and interesting findings. Just simple breathing and doing the right kind of breath work can help calm the amygdala, reduce stress, and combat anxiety and depression. Check out this article as well as this amazing podcast interview with Tim Ferriss and Wim Hof – and these specific breath exercises that Wim Hof recommends. You can do breathing exercises anywhere, any time - including right now!
For meditation, we’ve had so many guests talk about the science and importance of meditation, it would be impossible to list them all here, for starters the Rick Hanson episode does a great job talking about how important meditation is, but we also did an episode specifically about meditation, how to get started with meditation, and went into many of the studies about why meditation is so helpful.
All of these mind-body interventions are dead simple, are scientifically backed, and can be implemented immediately in your life.
I would also suggest watch this amazing video by Tal Ben Shahar where he discusses in depth the power and research behind many of these mind-body interventions and how they can help you.
Expectations About Emotions
Something else that can fuel cycles of anxiety and depression is having certain expectations about your emotions.
You can't expect to be happy and motivated all the time - but many of us do - and those expectations can have serious negative consequences for our mental health (creating a spiral of being anxious that you're anxious or depressed that you're depressed, etc).
The interview with Megan was life changing for me and really helped me see how my own “perfectionist” expectations about my emotions were at the root of much of my own suffering – and it taught me invaluable lessons about self compassion and how to cultivate it.
Once again, its not an accident that I had these kinds of conversations with these particular people, these are issues I have personally battled with and struggled against, and I know what the fight is like, and I know how to win it. These are some of the tools that helped me do it - and they can help you too.
Creating Motivation & Getting Started
One of the struggles you mentioned was how to find motivation to do anything when you’re battling against depression and anxiety.
What most people don’t understand is that motivation does not create action, it’s actually the reverse. Action creates motivation. The key is to force yourself to get started with the smallest possible step. Get that small win and it starts to snowball.
Have you ever said you were going to just clean up one little thing in your house and then you find yourself two hours later having cleaned a TON and you feel super productive?
That kind of feeling is a result of the fact that action creates motivation. Force yourself to just start even when (and especially when) you don't feel like it. This fantastic blog post from Mark Manson talks about this principle.
Small victories, just starting somewhere, can get you into a flow state of productivity and snowball into more and more motivation.
Achieving Your Dreams
I know you’re worried about achieving your goals and dreams, and how depression and anxiety can get in the way and sabotage what you so desperately want.
But I also want you to know that history is full of amazing people who've struggled through depression to produce incredible things.
In our interview with Gail Saltz we talk about this and specifically about how sometimes our challenges are the same thing as our greatest strengths (specifically in the context of depression, ADHD, and more) - I think you would enjoy this as well.
It’s inspiring and empowering to know that other people have gone through the same struggle (even me!) and you are NOT alone.
There Is Hope & A Path Forward
So to wrap up – what have we learned?
- Science demonstrates that you can change the physical structure and chemistry of your brain to reverse depression and anxiety
- There are simple and easy mind-body interventions that you can start today to combat your depression and anxiety
- Self compassion, acceptance, and not expecting to always be happy are key components of winning this battle
- Small wins can help generate motivation and get you going
- Many, many people have struggled through the same thing and come out victorious, and so can you!
I hope this is helpful to you James. There is light at the end of the tunnel. You're gonna kick ass.
Thank you so much for reading that email and I hope, for those of you are hurting, that this can help in some way.
The battle against depression and anxiety is something that is very personal for me. After putting so much time and thought into responding to this listener, I felt that I had to share this resource on the website as well.
If you found this valuable, or know someone who is struggling, please share it.