They say we’re all in this together—but if current social restrictions, financial concerns, and isolation have left you feeling stressed and depressed, it sure can feel like you’re all alone.
And it’s not all in your head. Studies show that social isolation and uncertainty about the future breed anxiety and depression, and financial fears are linked with higher levels of anxiety and poor mental health. And to make matters worse, chronic stress significantly impacts immune health, inflammation, and susceptibility to infectious disease.
There’s not much you can do about the state of the world, but you can take steps to protect your mood. Here are some of the best ways to feel better, right now.
1. Step away from that double espresso.
Caffeine increases feelings of stress and anxiety. Make your morning latte with green tea instead—it’s rich in L-theanine, a compound that interacts with neurotransmitters in the brain and helps relieve anxiety. In one study, volunteers who took L-theanine showed more alpha waves, a sign of calm and relaxation. Other research shows that L-theanine can improve mood in people with major depressive disorder and reduce anxiety better than prescription medications.
2. Get off the couch.
Exercise is critical for reducing stress, improving mood, and promoting healthy sleep. Moving your body works in part by lowering stress hormones and temporarily boosting endorphins, brain chemicals that promote better mood. Over the long run, exercise appears to encourage the brain to rewire itself in a way that eases depression. Shoot for three to five days a week. If possible, exercise outside, and with a friend—hikes and long walks are ideal.
3. Don’t hold your breath.
Stress and anxiety decrease respiration—not good for mood and mental health. Deep, steady breathing helps lower cortisol levels and can reduce stress and anxiety. A simple online yoga or meditation class can help, and both are linked with improvements in anxiety and depression, and an overall sense of well-being.
4. Go back to school.
This is the perfect time to cultivate a new skill. Studies show that novel activities promote chemical changes in the brain, increasing levels of dopamine—a brain chemical that’s linked with pleasure and enjoyment. Learning a skill or activity can also create new neural pathways, improve mood, and lessen depression. Try an online class—language, painting, cooking, music, or whatever inspires your creative passion.
5. Clean up your plate.
What you eat directly influences neurotransmitters and inflammation, and can impact stress, anxiety, and depression. Go easy on the carbs and saturated fat, and focus on whole foods high in brain-healthy nutrients such as tryptophan, vitamin B12, folate, omega-3s, calcium, lycopene, and anthocyanins. Excellent choices for supporting mood include walnuts, soybeans, white beans, yogurt, cheese, eggs, turkey, salmon, hemp seeds, yogurt, collard greens, tomatoes, pink grapefruit, avocado, broccoli, spinach, beets, blackberries, and red cabbage.
6. Tame the flame.
New research links depression with brain inflammation, and studies consistently show that people with major depressive disorder have increased levels of inflammatory biomarkers. Stress and trauma also promote inflammation, impacting mood by breaking down tryptophan and disrupting serotonin. One of the best ways to tame the flame is curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, which has been shown in dozens of studies to reduce inflammation, not only in the brain but also in the gut, a critical component of overall mood. Curcumin also elevates serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals linked with a sense of ease and well-being.
7. Stabilize your sleep.
Insufficient or poor-quality sleep is directly linked with depression and anxiety. It goes both ways: stress and depression also make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Rest easy with a consistent before-bed routine, and avoid computers and other electronics at least two to four hours before bed (screens emit blue light that disturbs melatonin production and regular sleep). Try to go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day, and don’t oversleep. Too much sleep is linked with depression. If you struggle with sleep, supplements such as melatonin, valerian, lemon balm, and lavender essential oil have proven benefits.
Related: 7 Supplements for Better Sleep
8. Hug a tree.
Being outside with flowers and trees reduces stress and improves mood. In one study, taking a walk in nature reduced depression scores in 71 percent of participants.
And you don’t have to break a sweat—in the same study, the equivalent amount of exercise indoors didn’t impact mood. Plus, a regular dose of sunshine enhances vitamin D production, which can relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. Vitamin D influences neurotransmitters related to brain function and mood, and a number of studies have linked low vitamin D with increased stress, depression, and anxiety.
9. Make your belly better.
Gut and mood are intimately linked through the gut-brain axis, and gut microbiota communicate with the central nervous system (CNS) through a variety of pathways. Beneficial microorganisms in the gut produce serotonin and other neuroactive substances, and research links disturbances in the gut microbiome with increased risk of depression. Other studies show that a healthy microbiome can protect against anxiety and other mood disorders. Add fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, tempeh,
and kimchi to your diet, or take a high-quality probiotic.
10. Adapt, naturally.
Adaptogenic herbs naturally improve the body’s response to stress and help the body’s own systems reach a state of physical and mental balance. Rhodiola rosea appears to impact serotonin and dopamine, and studies suggest that it can significantly reduce anxiety, stress, anger, and depression. Ashwagandha also helps regulate neurotransmitters, and some research suggests that it also has effects on anxiety similar to those of benzodiazepines, a prescription anti-anxiety drug.
11. Eat chocolate.
It’s rich in anandamide and PEA (phenyl- ethylamine), compounds that reduce stress and encourage a sense of calm and happiness. It’s also high in magnesium, critical in the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol, low levels of which are linked with feelings of anxiety. In one study, people who ate 40 grams of chocolate a day reported less stress. And choose extra-dark chocolate. It’s higher in beneficial compounds and lower in sugar than milk chocolate. Other good sources of magnesium include leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, black beans, cashews, and avocado.
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