First Things First: Sleep, Eat, Exercise, and Walk with God
Like you, I often have friends tell me they’re depressed – not necessarily clinically depressed, which is physiological and may need a medicinal response – but they’re just low. I ask them why and they usually give me one or more reasons.
Not infrequently, the putative causes don’t justify the persistently low mood. When that’s the case, I follow-up with a question: Are you sleeping enough, eating right, exercising regularly and walking with God on a daily basis? The answer is almost always no.
If it’s true that 80% of life is just showing up, I’d argue that many problems can be fixed with those four simple – or not so simple – habits. These things are both easy and hard. They’re easy to do and within reach for most people, except our lack of self-discipline makes them hard to do consistently.
I’m not saying that depression is never justified. Heck, I’d say it’s almost always justified in one sense. The world can be a dark place, and if you spend 30 minutes reading the news there is ample reason to be permanently depressed. War, hunger, disease, and strife are ever-present realities somewhere at any given time. On my best day – which means I’m with my family on a sailboat – I still remember that other people are suffering and that can get me down. And then there’s the specter of my own decline and demise, as is true for everyone I love.
On the other hand, given the backdrop of so much suffering, it’s amazing that any day is good. That I can walk around my neighborhood without fearing being murdered is awesome – and not a given everywhere. That I have never been deprived of even one meal my whole life is phenomenal. That I can get to a doctor when I’m sick is stupendous. That I have a family who loves me (notwithstanding my multitude of faults) is beyond amazing. If you begin with the assumption that the world is a hard place filled with suffering, pain, and death, then you can feel ebullient on any given day. But how to retain this frame of mind that looks at the glass as more than half-full?
Start with sleep. I don’t know about you, but deprive me of sleep and the color drains out of my day. William Shakespeare wrote “Sleep that soothes away all our worries. Sleep that puts each day to rest. Sleep that relieves the weary laborer and heals hurt minds. Sleep, the main course in life's feast, and the most nourishing.” More than one-third of Americans don’t get enough sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control. I find that before going to bed my emotions tend to be the least easily tamed. And monsters which loomed large at night seem manageable after a solid night’s sleep.
Next, eat right. You are what you eat, more or less. If your calories come from junk food, it’s no wonder that your emotions can go haywire. A balanced diet is key. This is so obvious that it hardly bears further explanation.
Exercise is important to emotional stability. The CDC says that less than one in four Americans exercise enough, and that can lead to depression and anxiety. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: just because you can’t spend 90 minutes in the gym doesn’t mean you can’t burn calories and elevate your heartbeat with a 30-minute power walk. A recent study found that adults who did activities equivalent to 75 minutes of brisk walking per week had an 18% lower risk of depression compared with those who didn’t exercise. (Plus, burning calories means you can eat more chocolate, which is very important to my mental health….)
Last – and most important – is to walk with God daily through prayer and Bible reading while participating in a church community. If I have any super-power, it’s this. Seeking God daily has been a fixture of my life since I was 14 years old. I learned this lesson from my parents. Every night, I saw them quietly spending time reading the Bible and praying. For me, reading the Bible changes my natural perspective about life and death. And praying through “ACTS” – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication – grounds me. It helps me to remember both who God is (good, loving, holy, and totally demanding) and who I am (sinful but still bearing God’s image, forgiven and loved). Plus, I’ve been in a small group of fellow Christians for almost all of my 42 following Christ. Following Christ is just too hard to be done alone.
Keeping these four habits first in one’s life isn’t a panacea, but it can make a big difference. It’s not rocket science, but it holds the potential to lift you out of the doldrums and set your feet on solid ground.