Move that body: regular exercise can help in the fight against depression. Photo: Stocksy
More than three million Australians experience depression and/or anxiety each year, according to Beyond Blue. The cost of therapy (from $70-$150 an hour for an accredited counsellor to up to $235 and more for a one-hour psychology session), combined with the stigma of mental illness, can mean our psychic sufferings remain a private struggle. But sufferers who can't afford ongoing therapy shouldn't lose hope. Research reveals that some of the most effective strategies for depression and stress require little expenditure other than time, and are as easy to access as a walk in the park.
"The woods are sanitariums," wrote Paul Brunton in a treatise called Meditations for People in Crisis. Today, science is heralding the healing power of nature, with Japan heading a new discipline known as forest medicine.
Dr Qing Li, a pioneer in the field of forest medicine in Japan, explains that stimuli such as running water, nature sounds and pine scents can boost our mood and vigour, reduce production of the stress hormone cortisol, and increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system - responsible for relaxation and renewal. A leisurely three-hour forest walk was found to improve depression, tension, anxiety and other negative moods in subjects in a 2013 study by the Yamanashi Institute of Environmental Sciences in Japan.
Better yet, Qing Li's research has found that these benefits can be achieved by simply walking in a park.
Move that body
Regular exercise has been found to be as effective as antidepressants when it comes to shaking the blues.
The question is, how much is enough? Based on a 2013 review of the literature on depression, Harvard Medical School recommends aiming for half an hour to an hour of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking) daily. Exercise stimulates the natural endorphins that lift mood and may additionally help by boosting self-esteem and other health factors.
Call on a higher power
JAMA Psychiatry, a journal of the American Medical Association, this year found scientific evidence of the protective impact of faith upon the brain using MRI techniques. Researchers at the University of Columbia in New York found the brain cortex was thicker in subjects who placed a high value on spirituality than those who did not. Past research has revealed that people at high risk of depression tend to show thinning of this region of the brain.
The same team found placing a high importance on spirituality was associated with a 90 per cent decrease in major depression in those who had a family history of the disease.
Taking up a sewing or yoga group or joining a sporting club might improve your depression. A recent study by the University of Queensland found membership of social groups reduces existing depression and protects against future depressive episodes. Effectiveness is dependent upon a sense of group affiliation, so think quality, not quantity.
Doctors in Britain are prescribing gardening for depression, and researchers at the University of Bristol may have discovered a more peculiar reason gardening might elevate our mood: Mycobacterium vaccae, a species of bacteria found in soil that stimulates the production of serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of happiness.
Self-help books, apps, web pages and guided meditations
Try searching your library for copies of Susan Tanner and Jillian Ball's Beating the Blues: A Self-help Approach to Overcoming Depression or The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Websites beyondblue.org.au and blackdoginstitute.org.au are helpful. Alternatively, you can download free apps such as Positive Thinking, Smiling Mind and Depression CBT Self-Help Guide.
Look after your diet
A Canadian study found an increased intake of vitamins and minerals improved mental functioning in subjects with diagnosed mood disorders. And be aware that many illnesses, ranging from thyroid problems to B12 deficiency, can masquerade as mental health problems.
* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114,