Depression is incredibly common, with an estimated one in ten people currently reporting to be depressed, and one in six people experiencing it at some point in their lives. I endured two frightening bouts of depression: once during sophomore year of college, and again after 9/11 when I was wrongfully put on a federal no-fly list. I haven’t experienced a severe bout in over 10 years now. I believe my current mental hygiene regimen is the reason why, and I write this in the hope that others will find it helpful in staying positive and healthy.
After being put on a no-fly list, I experienced painful (and not altogether unfounded) paranoia that I was being followed and watched. This paranoia, along with the stress of a high-profile lawsuit and the hate mail that accompanied it wore me down. It was during an 8-hour deposition related to that lawsuit that I experienced a full breakdown. For weeks I felt like I was always on the verge of tears. I lost confidence. I walked around carrying a pit of unspecified dread in my gut. At the time, I confided in a sum total of one person (my dear friend Uzma).
I never went to a psychiatrist.
I never thought my depression was severe enough to see a doctor. Besides that, I didn’t want to be given powerful medications with unreasonable side effects. No doubt mental health professionals help many people, often without resorting to any drugs at all, but I never went. I suspect most people don’t get professional help.
Napping and meditation brought me back to baseline.
I was just starting my first company, MetroNaps, when I experienced that breakdown. I believe the business, and working alongside my hyper-focused, super smart business partner, saved me. I was able to take a regular 20-minute nap every day for five years as CEO of MetroNaps. Those naps were precursors to today’s meditation because I learned how to quiet my mind and relax my body on command. The various stresses of entrepreneurship – the stresses of having very little money, not knowing if my business will succeed, facing family and friends when I fail – are all made easier when I can put myself into a calming trance on a regular basis.
Sleeping right keeps my mood elevated.
Whenever I start tumbling towards depression my sleep patterns change. I stay up super late, and I’m sure this only exacerbates the depression. So the first line of defense against encroaching depression is sleep. I’m naturally a night owl, but I never let myself pull all-nighters anymore. They’re too dangerous.
Exercise is a quick fix.
Anger is a toxic emotion, and it’s one that can settle in and take hold of my heart and mind, usually after an argument, and it just doesn’t let go. For this, a 20-minute workout is the single best solution. An intense workout seems to put my emotions in perspective and, about 15 minutes into it, I no longer see what the big deal is. There are also specific meditations one can do to address lingering anger. You can read about those in this book.
Food matters too.
Food plays a very weird part in the cycle. When I’m feeling like crap, I tend to get lazy about what I eat. I’ll let down my usual guard and just eat or drink whatever is convenient. A heavy meal will make me less likely to exercise, and then I won’t get as tired at night, so I end up staying up later… it’s all connected.
I can’t be alone in this. Sudden weight gain is a common signal of depression, so food plays a bigger role in our mental health than most of us suspect. I try to eat plant-based, low-sugar foods to keep my energy at the right level.
It’s all about maintaining mental hygiene.
To me, all of this amounts to mental hygiene. These happen to be best practices for avoiding disease and looking and feeling younger, so it seems clear that mental and physical health are deeply intertwined. We as a society have very poor mental hygiene. And I see so many people who obviously suffer from depression and psychological issues more severe than mine, and yet they take almost no steps to maintain their mental hygiene. They’d rather have loads of coffee during the day, wine in the evening, and sleeping pills at night.
That, to me, is madness.