A Simple, Yet Not-Always-Easy, Solution to Reducing Depression and Anxiety

Summer is right around the corner, which can be a stressful time for many. Maybe you have kids who will be out of school, which means your home will be noisier and days will be busier. Maybe you have a busy social calendar filled with trips, weddings, and barbecues. Maybe you are dreading the triple-digit Texas temperatures and having to spend more time inside.

During times of stress, healthy habits tend to fall to the wayside. Same is true if we find ourselves increasingly struggling with depression or anxiety. We do things that we think are helping us (i.e., sleeping more, eating more high carb/fat foods, drinking alcohol), and do less of things that actually help us.

Exercise is a powerful, but often overlooked, tool in managing these issues. Research indicates that an exercise regimen is as effective at treating depression as anti-depressant medication. Even better? The effects are immediate – most people feel the mood-boosting effects about 5 minutes after completing their exercise.

The mechanisms whereby exercise improves your mood is two-fold. When you exercise, physiological changes occur in your body that have a direct impact on your mood. Endorphins (natural painkillers) and serotonin (a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in happiness and wellbeing), increase, and stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) decrease. Exercise also contributes to improved sleep, which we know plays a key role in both depression and anxiety.

Psychologically, exercise contributes to a feeling of accomplishment (“yay! I did something today besides watch Netflix!”), increases self-efficacy (“when I feel bad I can do something to change it!”), improves healthy coping skills (“wow, a quick run makes me feel a lot better than a couple glasses of wine!”). For those that suffer from anxiety, which is usually marked by a lot of physical symptoms, exercise induces a lot of the feared physical symptoms (heart racing, sweating). The repeated experiencing of these physical symptoms helps you to become less afraid of them and attach new, more helpful, meaning to them.

However, exercise is simple in terms of concept, but not always easy to execute. To overcome this, I have a few suggestions. First, keep in mind the law of inertia. It is far more difficult to get something moving than it is to keep it moving. Try to get started on your new exercise regimen on a day and time that you are feeling most motivated or energized, for example, on Saturday morning after a cup of coffee. From there, set reasonable goals and be consistent. You are not going to be able to run at the same pace you did as a high schooler in cross country if you haven’t gone out for a run in years. Any exercise is progress and movement in the right direction! Also, keep in mind you are not always going to feel like exercising. And, the good news is, you don’t have to in order to do it! Keep a journal and write down the positive effects you feel after you exercise, and revisit those entries when you need some extra motivation. Lastly, be kind to yourself and expect that it isn’t going to go perfectly. You may miss a workout, or fall back into old habits. Acknowledge that this has happened, and resume your routine.

If you live in the Austin area and feel like you would benefit from support and guidance on managing depression or anxiety, please reach out to me via telephone at 512-521-1531 or email me at laura@drlaurawahlstrom.com to discuss your situation and see if I may be a good fit to help.

The Power of Breath

Not long ago I was watching the Today Show, and the topic was how to live a longer and healthier life. One of the segments was focused on deep breathing and how researchers believe may play a key role in slowing the aging process. Deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing (more on that shortly), is one of my go-to skills I teach my therapy clients. Why? It is highly effective, and can be used anywhere, at any time. And, now I may be able to add to that list it helps you live longer!

Our typical breathing tends to be shallow and happens in our chest. When we experience anxiety or stress, our breathing tends to become even more shallow and rapid, and can set off a downward spiral of physical symptoms, thoughts, and behaviors. Hyperventilation (i.e., an imbalance of our oxygen and carbon dioxide levels) may set in, which leads to feeling dizzy or lightheaded, which leads to thoughts that something is wrong with you, which leads to more rapid breathing, which leads to…

You get the idea, right?

One of the keys to stopping this cycle is to change your breathing. This is where diaphragmatic breathing (also known as deep breathing and belly breathing) comes into play. Instead of taking rapid, shallow breaths from your chest, you take slow, deep breaths from your belly. This encourages full oxygen exchange, slows your heartbeat, and lowers blood pressure. All of those scary physical symptoms that are signaling to you “something is wrong with me!” have been thwarted.

What if you don’t struggle with anxiety – can diaphragmatic breathing help you? Absolutely! For those who deal with day-to-day stress, have difficulties, winding down, difficulties sleeping, trouble “shutting your brain off” at the end of the day, diaphragmatic breathing can help you relax.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Instructions:

To start, find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. Place one hand on your belly, and begin taking a slow, deep breath in. You should feel your chest expand, and your belly rise. Then, slowly expel the air from your chest. Continue breathing this way, counting as you breathe in and out. Each person is unique, so the number of seconds for the in and out breaths do vary some. I usually start with “In… 2… 3… out… 2…. 3” with my clients and adjust from there. You do not want to breathe so deeply that you are feeling dizzy or lightheaded – that is specifically what we are trying to counteract! If you find that happens, breathe more shallow or take shorter in and out breaths.

It is most helpful, especially at the beginning, to have someone else (therapist, friend, spouse) count for you while you breathe. There is also a great app you can download called Breathe2Relax that will give instructions and guide you through diaphragmatic breathing exercises.

There are 2 things I think are crucial for diaphragmatic breathing to be effective:

Expectancies – Simply put, if you believe in the rationale and science behind diaphragmatic breathing, it is more likely to be effective. If you believe it is simplistic or silly, it probably won’t help you.

Practice – How likely do you think it is you would make the Olympic track and field team if you had only run one time in the last year? Just like athletes need to train to improve their physical fitness and skills, diaphragmatic breathing needs to be practiced to be effective. A good place to start is daily practice of 5-10 minutes,during a time you are not in the throws of anxiety or significant stress.

I’ve included some helpful links on diaphragmatic breathing below. If you are interested is learning more about anxiety management and relaxation, and live in the Austin area, please reach out to me at 512-521-1531 or laura@drlaurawahlstrom.com.

Mayo Clinic: Decrease Stress by Using Your Breath

Psychology Today: Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and Your Vagus Nerve