How can I live a better life?
August 25, 2013 10:21 PM   Subscribe

After years of depression and self-medication I'm trying to live a better life. What should I be doing?

For the last five years I've somehow lost my way. Following a rather messy divorce I became very depressed, something only recently diagnosed, however I appear to have been quite unaware that this was happening. I have self-medicated a lot, alcohol and food mostly but drugs and sex were in the mix also. My behaviour, anger issues mostly, combined with a heap of social anxiety brought my job and relationship with many friends and girlfriend to an end around a year ago and six months ago I moved to a remote and rural area in order to start afresh and get myself together. Three months ago I visited my new GP, the first time I'd seen a doctor in a decade, and prescribed 20mg Fluoxetine to be taken daily and advised to exercise and improve my diet, cut down on alcohol, abstain from drugs full stop. There is no provision for therapy in this area but he recommended some CBT books and exercises to go through. I've found the first couple of months on the SSRI to be a bit of a roller coaster, I basically hid in bed for six weeks but now seem to have come through the fog and am feeling much more positive. After easing myself back into freelance work my money concerns are alleviating so now I'm about to start to build myself from scratch, mentally and physically.

Tomorrow I begin running (C25K) and am mixing in some strength training as exercise. I have about two stone to lose to get back to my safe BMI. I've also filled my fridge with healthy, clean foods (fish, chicken, green vegetables, fruit) and am drastically reducing my alcohol intake. I haven't used drugs in months and my current location prohibits that possibility even if I wanted to. Socialising here is difficult, I am a little isolated geographically so there is the positives and negatives of solitude to consider. I have been celibate for a year. I live in a beautiful place, nature is close at hand.

My question...what things that bring value, joy, happiness and meaning to your life could you recommend integrating into my life with the intention of improving my physical and mental well being for the better, long term? I wish to live a better life than the one I have lived so far.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
For me it would be meditating, practicing mindfulness, making conscious decisions, and spending some time volunteering every week - but those might not resonate for you.

The beautiful moment you are in right now - actively beginning the process of recreating yourself, how amazing! - means YOU get to pick what those things are. Experiment with anything that sounds interesting, drop the things that don't add to your life and keep doing the things that really rock your world.

And congratulations on pulling yourself out of the hole - that is an incredible achievement. Best to you on your journey.
posted by deliciae at 10:45 PM on August 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Teach yourself photography. Take some online writing courses. Look for ways to give back to your community, no matter how isolated it is. Take pleasure in how beautiful your surroundings are. Meditate, or find the thing in your life that helps you become meditative. Read. Read often. Read more than you go on the internet, read more than you sit in front of the tv. Get a pet you can dote on. Get to know yourself. See yourself as human. You'll keep moving forward as you do.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:45 PM on August 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I like to have an almost mind/body/spirit attitude towards making my life better for myself. When I do something beneficial for myself, which can be as simple as having a shower first thing in the morning, I look for the ways that doing this activity is actually beneficial.

Mind refers to the things you think about and your ability to cope with whatever the day throws at you. CBT will likely really help you with this. How do you perceive the world?

Body is related to things like sex, the food you eat and the exercise you take. Also the ways that you ensure that your physical presence on this planet continues in a healthy fashion.

Spirit is anything that makes you feel awed or humble, or takes you out of yourself and your existence and makes you realise that you're just a cog in a machine, vital to that machine though you may be. This includes any religious aspects to life that you might have, but it's not necessary to be a theist or indeed have any religious aspect whatsoever. The word "spirit" is merely a placeholder. Gratitude, which falls under this banner, is the one thing that made the most difference to my life.

Things that are beneficial to me (and possibly to you too):

Baking my own bread. I've yet to try this, but the idea of it excites me (spirit), it's going to be healthier for me than store bought bread (body), kneading the dough is good exercise (body), it's a chance to work out some aggression (mind), I feel as though I've achieved something (mind/spirit) and then I get to eat something (body/spirit) that I created myself (mind/spirit). The fact that I bought the bread from an independent retailer rather than a big corporation also makes me feel virtuous (spirit).

Walking my dog. It's good exercise (body), it's fun to watch my dog experiencing her world (spirit), it gets me out into Nature (spirit), it gives me something to focus on other than myself in that I'm responsible for another life and I get to witness that other life first hand (spirit).

Making a cup of coffee. The ritual aspect helps me wake up first thing in the morning (mind), the caffeine helps me wake up in the morning (body) and I feel virtuous because I use fairly traded coffee (spirit).

(I think you get the idea of how the m/b/s aspects work, so I'm not going to elucidate each one from now on).

Meditating. There are lots of different kinds of meditation. I like the Take10 series here, which is 10 minutes a day for 10 days to give you a taste of what it's like. Free video guide here. Compassion meditation, or metta bhavana, makes you feel amazing quite quickly. There are also body scan meditations, walking meditations, etc.

Having a hot shower. Don't let your shower be a completely utilitarian thing. Consider how lucky you are to have hot water come out of a pipe in your wall. Consider the infrastructure that goes into enabling you to press a button or fiddle with a knob and get heated drinking water on tap.

Doing CBT exercises. Train your brain to think in more beneficial patterns. It's not just for depression. It's about training yourself to have a balanced, rational and resilient view of the world. It won't cure your problems overnight, and you'll still have to work at the doing part, but it's backed by SCIENCE!.

Watching TV programme about nature. When I'm in a funk, seeing another animal struggle and succeed really helps me pull myself out of it. I can't find the video on Youtube right now, but there's a BBC documentary that contains a segment about mudskippers. These little fish have to build a burrow, defend a territory, mate, raise eggs and carry on doing that somewhere where twice a day their world gets turned upside down by the tide coming in and going out. Seeing what these creatures who have brains the size of a pea have to cope with helps me put my problems into perspective.

Eating a cream cake. Not necessarily good for the body, but most definitely good for the soul. Especially if I've worked hard and am using it as a reward.

Getting good sleep. If I get a good night's sleep I can cope with a helluva lot. This is in my Top 3 of Important Things.

Helping others. Being able to be beneficial to someone else can really make you feel good. Especially if you do it in secret. Donate time and money to charity. Or even do something that doesn't affect you at all - join World Community Grid. Give something back, and when you do it with an open heart, the reward is in the giving of it.

Listen to music. Find something that gets you moving or makes you want to cry. Something that strikes a chord, if you'll pardon the pun.

Use new words. Stretch your brain by learning new skills. Subscribe to a Word-a Day service and then try to use that day's word in a sentence when talking to someone (or even yourself). Write a short story about the life of a magical teaspoon. The intent isn't to get published, it's to stretch yourself. Your mind is just as much of a muscle as any other one in your body.

Contemplate human existence - how did we get here? Why are we here? What is the point of it all?

Cultivate a taste for healthy foods. Healthy doesn't have to mean bland. When you're eating, stop and pay attention to the flavours and textures. Enjoy your food rather than shovelling it in after the first few mouthfuls.

Try new foods. Ever tasted molasses? Or huitlacoche? Or tripe? Go buy a some and use it in a recipe. If other people like a particular food that you've never tried, go try it. You might like it. You might not, too, but at least you've given your brain something new and challenging to think about.

Let your mind free associate on a word. Sit quietly and watch the thoughts appear in your brain. Follow the (likely very) random path they take. After a few minutes, write down where you started - the word carpet, where you ended up and most importantly, how you got there.

Grow your own foods. Salads like radishes or lettuce are the easiest thing to start with, if you're not experienced. You'll need a packet of seeds, a planter and some compost. Less than $10, probably less than $5 if you hunt around. Eating something you killed or pulled from the ground yourself seems to activate a very caveman part of the brain. You provided for yourself. Go growl and beat your chest. You've earned it.

Learn a new skill that's outside of your comfort zone. I grew up watching my grandmother and mother knit and crochet. Eventually I learned how to do it and made myself a shawl. Every time I use that shawl, part of what keeps me warm is knowing that if I hadn't created it, it wouldn't exist to keep me warm. I'd be cold.

Go to the park and feed the ducks, especially if you can borrow a small child from someone. Kids generally really enjoy this activity. It costs you some time and a loaf of bread to do something that is almost entirely selfless. If you have a kid with you, watch how they experience the experience. You can learn a lot from those who are childlike (nb, not childish) in their outlook.

Build something. Maybe out of lego, maybe a compost pile in your back yard. Something physical that you can look at and say "I did that".

Do an ABC form. CBT will help you live a more skilful life and be better prepared to deal with life's vicissitudes.

Live 80:20. If you're doing well, or at the very least on top of things, 80% of the time, then you're doing pretty darn well. Let yourself goof off 20% of the time. It's not wasted time, it's good for you. Rigidity and perfectionism rarely help anyone.

Remember that the Universe is not just. There's nothing that you can do that entitles you to anything. Any good thing in your life is something that you're lucky to have. You could work hard and scramble your entire life and it could all come to nothing. Smell the roses, because they might not be there tomorrow. Take nothing for granted.

Look for new ways and things that you aspire to. Challenge yourself, just a little bit. Having a goal is what keeps us moving. Something to aim for is better than wandering aimlessly. Doesn't matter what it is. Some days, my goal is get washed, eat something and write my gratitude list. Some days, more than that is necessary. Take something that you already do, and do 10% more of it. If you walk for an hour a day, walk for an hour and 10 minutes.

Keep a gratitude list. This is the most important thing I can recommend to you. Doing this one thing has had the biggest impact on my life since I started doing it 7 years ago. Every day I list the things I'm grateful for. It's helped regulate my emotions, pull me out of depression and made me realise just how lucky I am to be alive. Doing it on a daily basis forces me to consider what has gone well that day. I'm also able to look back over the past several years and see how many times I've been blessed.
posted by Solomon at 12:20 AM on August 26, 2013 [39 favorites]

Aaargh, had something typed up and lost it.

To summarise, it's entirely up to you and your individual tastes and preferences, but I'd say what you should look for are:

(1) A hobby or two. Something you find fulfilling on a deep level - maybe cooking because it's alchemy that you can eat, or drawing because you're creating beauty from a blank page, or cryptic crosswords because of the intellectual challenge, and the "aha!" moment you get when you figure out a clue, or tenpin bowling because of the tension of watching the ball roll and excitement of getting a strike. Anyway, you may not know what your hobby is until you find it, but when you find it, it will make your life so much better.

(2) Some kind of community that you can be actively involved in. I'm using the word loosely - can be 1 or 2 close friends, run club, occasional meetup group. Bonus if it ties in with your hobby/s or helps out people less fortunate than you. Online if you're really that isolated. Be prepared to put into it what you hope to get out of it and it can be so, so rewarding.
posted by pianissimo at 12:46 AM on August 26, 2013

While you are building your new life, my best recommendation is to make it easy for future you to make good choices. For me, that means that when I have committed in my head to go cycling the next day, my cycling clothes go on the floor at the bottom of the stairs so I don't have to think - I just change when I come into the house. For food, it means having a menu planned out for the week and doing as much food preparation as possible at the weekend to stop lazy moments during the week.

Otherwise, I find getting my house in order (literally - decluttered, tidy, clean) makes me feel very peaceful. Yoga was great. Now, physical exercise that I enjoy is fab (martial arts mean I talk to people too!).

For me over the longer term, meaning and value come from social relationships and from learning new things. Are there any classes you've always fancied or been curious about? Are there any book groups locally? How about a dance class? The thing is that social relationships take a long time to form but if you start in several ways now, you might start to see things developing in 6 months.
posted by kadia_a at 1:38 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Try reading the book "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Basics and Beyond." I found it immensely helpful in a way that just doing a CBT workbook wouldn't have been.
posted by gjc at 2:08 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Start small. Make one change at a time, then add on once you've mastered it. Cut out the drugs and alcohol (which you shouldn't take when you're on antidepressants), then start eating healthier, then start C25K, then clean your house or volunteer or whatever's next on your list. If you take on too much at once, you run the risk of getting overwhelmed, burning out, and reverting back to your old habits. Antidepressants are a lifesaver and can make you feel like a totally new person, but (as I discovered to my chagrin) they don't do much for removing bad habits. It'll still be a challenge to build a healthier life for yourself, but it's a challenge you're now up for. If you backslide, don't be too hard on yourself or assume your progress is ruined; just quietly steer yourself back on track.

The one specific thing I'd recommend is to get a dog or cat, if you want one, once you're in a relatively stable financial and emotional place. Not only do they love you, the responsibility of caring for one can be an anchor when you're otherwise feeling adrift.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:21 AM on August 26, 2013

I seem to use this answer at lot, but it works for me every time. I re-read it almost daily:


Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

© Max Ehrmann 1927
posted by matty at 7:18 AM on August 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

If you want a bit of structure in your process, you might want to check out SuperBetter. Jane McGonigal explains and demonstrates it in a TED talk in a way that I found much more useful and convincing than just reading the "about" section on the website. Basically, it gives you quick and easy tasks ("quests") to help develop your resilience, and (if you want it), it provides the scientific background for why those tasks are helpful. The tasks develop your coping strength in the physical, mental, emotional, and social realms. You can customize it by adding your own quests and goals, or by using their preset collections that focus on improving self-esteem, elevating mood, breaking a bad habit, losing weight, etc.

You earn points in each of the four realms as you do these quests, and the game aspect seems helpful to some people as motivation to continue. Personally I don't find it really relevant. It's just nice when I'm having a bad day and can't think of any way to turn it around, because I can log on to SuperBetter and be reminded of a bunch of easy things that can turn the tide. Drink a glass of water. Go for a walk, even if it's just once around the block. Send an email to a friend. Do a 2-minute guided meditation, or a 20-minute one. The trap I fall into when I'm trying to improve my life independently is thinking I have to do everything, and do it right, to get any benefit. But the truth is, if I can't bring myself to hit the gym for an hour, I'm still better off going for a 10-minute walk, or even standing up to stretch for 20 seconds, than sitting on the couch feeling guilty that I don't want to exercise. SuperBetter helps me remember that baby steps are still steps.
posted by vytae at 7:37 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Be kind to yourself and let yourself have bad days. The biggest problem I see with people starting over is they think FROM THIS DAY FORTH I MUST BE A NEW PERSON then they miss a workout or eat McDonald's and it's like WELP I AM NOT A NEW PERSON BACK TO MY OLD HABITS and they're not exercising and eating terrible because that one little failure means I AM NOT A NEW PERSON when really it was just a bad day.

Along those lines, set yourself up for success. I know people that have trouble controlling their snacking, then you check their cupboard and it's basically The World's Finest Snack Bar. I know people that have trouble with drinking but have a bar spread better than some night clubs. Your willpower is a limited thing, despite what people tell you, and if it's easier to not fight the battle by not having temptation around, there's no shame in it, whatever that temptation might be.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:40 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Taking care of yourself physically sounds trite but really makes you feel so much better inside and out... So try to eat nourishing foods, keep drinking water, and move around as much as you can.

Volunteering makes me happy if I am doing a type of service where I feel like I am useful and working for a meaningful cause.

I have hobbies that I liked pre-depression such as reading (non-self-help books) and baking which I had to work up an interest in, but gradually got back into and those things make me really happy. What stuff were you into pre-depression?

Plan your days ahead, this was unexpectedly important... If I have a day ahead which is empty I feel disproportionately bad about myself and lost in the world. So before bed, or as soon as you wake up, make a realistic, vague timeline of all the things you want to get done (or will enjoy) and roughly plan your day. It gives momentum which kind of snowballs after a while.

Try to use Hapyr for 21 days! It might feel like a chore at first, but this changes and it really did make me more bright and happy.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 10:52 AM on August 26, 2013

Consider scaling down to a couple goals at a time.

Starting an exercise program, radically changing your diet, losing weight, and dramatically cutting back your alcohol use, all at the same time, and all while climbing out of an intense depression, is frankly unrealistic. If you try to do all this at once, and fail, you may feel worse in a few months than you do now.

My advice is, make 3 smallish, realistic goals. For example:

1) I will drink no more than twice a week. When I drink I will have no more than 2 drinks.
2) I will exercise at least 2 times a week for at least 30 minutes.
3) I will start doing one social, outdoor activity within the next 3 weeks (for example, joining a local hiking meetup group).

These are achievable, realistic goals. By choosing achievable, realistic goals, you will set yourself up for success.

Commit to these achievable goals, and create accountability systems to ensure you do them. For example:
Use reward systems, ie: if I exercise 2 times a week, I get to veg out and watch [mindless TV show] for 2 hours on Friday nights.)
Or use accountability systems: become a volunteer to organize the local hiking meetup group. You have to show up because others are relying on you.

Make a note in your calendar for 3 weeks to check in with your progress. Note how well you're doing at that point! Notice how successful you are at these small, achievable goals!

Make another note in your calendar for 6 weeks. Note how well you've done. And at that point, after these first goals are becoming ingrained as habits, consider adding more goals like making some dietary changes.

You can do this, but be fair to yourself and do it one step at a time.
posted by latkes at 11:59 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like the idea that happiness is the culmination of a thousand little novelties. Get out in the world. Volunteer, take classes, talk to people, attend events, start a hobby, build things, join a community, see things you haven't seen. Depression is hard to do when you're around people and having new experiences all the time.
posted by cnc at 2:01 PM on August 26, 2013

posted by corn_bread at 7:46 PM on August 26, 2013

More thoughts:

Find yourself some heroes and/or heroines. People who have achieved something that you want to achieve. Then read their biographies and realise that they achieved whatever they did in spite of being a flawed human being, just like the rest of us. Don't worship anyone, because nobody is perfect. Aim high and strive for something, because it's good for you. Just don't let that little voice inside your head tell you that because of whatever limitations you might have, you can't achieve it.

Be prepared for things like flat tyres, blown fuses, power cuts, losing your job, etc. Knowing that you know how to cope with these situations is better than pretending that they'll never happen to you. One day they might, and then what are you going to do?

I think that one type of depression is a sense of ennui. Nothing is new, nothing changes, so your brain gets stuck into a rut. New challenges drag you out of this right quick. If you have to cope, then you have to cope. Something as simple as driving a different route home from work can help pull you out of this state, because some new information is coming into your brain. It can't rely on existing neurons to handle it, so it has to make new connections.

You're in a really good position right now to make some pretty drastic changes. The key to making them is going to be making the conscious choice, on a daily basis, to do something that is good for you. You're not going to change overnight, though. Being who you want to be is a lifetime job, simply because you're going to have to be around for a lifetime. The Power Of Habit is a pretty cool book about why we do what we habitually do. Knowing why you're doing something, which in my case often wasn't the reason I thought I was doing something, is key to changing the habit.
posted by Solomon at 1:21 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

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