6 Natural Ways to Feel Happier

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Lucy Danziger, the Editor-in-Chief of SELF magazine

If you had horrible back or stomach pain, you’d get yourself to a doctor (or emergency room!), immediately, right? Yet, when the pain is emotional — for instance, feeling persistently worried, sad or hopeless — people are likely to resist seeking help for months or even years. In a survey by SELF in conjunction with Discovery Health and Mental Health America in Alexandria, Virginia, 53 percent of women say they’ve felt intense worry for weeks — a sign of anxiety — and 54 percent say they’ve been consistently sad or hopeless, hallmarks of depression. Yet only 35 percent have received an official diagnosis of anxiety or depression. It takes, on average, six years for people to get treated for mood disorders, according to a survey by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. While suffering in silence is never a good idea, failing to seek help for anxiety or depression is downright dangerous, because the longer you wait, the worse things can get. In fact, increasing numbers of women are being diagnosed with a combination of anxiety and depression, because untreated anxiety can turn into depression and vice versa. This may be why two out of three depressed people also have symptoms of anxiety, according to Mental Health America.

Whether you doubt that your sadness warrants treatment (as 43 percent of women do), are embarrassed to talk to a professional (as 23 percent admit) or simply feel too apathetic or lethargic to make a visit, getting a diagnosis is first step to feeling like yourself again. Ask your physician for a referral to a psychologist or a psychiatrist or call your insurer for a list of mental health providers — you’ll be glad you did. If you aren’t struggling emotionally but suspect a friend is, tell her you sense that she’s feeling down and offer to assist her in finding a doctor. Thanks to your help, she’s likely to eventually start feeling better instead of worse. It may take a while to decide on the right course of treatment, whether it’s for you or your loved one, but in the meantime, making a few changes to your everyday habits can upgrade your outlook. Try the changes below to lift your mood, and to learn more about anxiety, depression and other emotional afflictions.

Sweat away sadness

We all know someone who says they exercise for their mental health, and guess what? Research proves they’re right! It turns out that working out may be as effective at relieving mild to moderate depression as the antidepressant Zoloft, because it stimulates the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine in your brain, according to a study from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. And you don’t need to train for a triathlon to reap the benefits. Just 30 minutes of walking a day can improve your mood. If you’d rather stretch than stride, even taking a yoga class has been proven to boost levels of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid that helps keep depression at bay.

Eat good food

Fish that contains omega-3 fatty acids enhances areas of the brain that affect your mood, so aim to eat a low-mercury swimmer, like wild salmon, arctic char or sardines twice a week. Have a baked spud on the side for a dose of vitamin B6, which lowers your depression risk. And foods rich in folate, such as spinach, beans and oranges, are filled with blues-busting serotonin—dig in, feel better!

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Have sweet dreams

It’s not just beauty sleep — it’s happy sleep! Logging a solid seven to eight hours of rest is one of the most important things you can do for your emotional health. People who have insomnia are five times more likely to develop depression compared with those who are well-rested, a study from the University of North Texas in Denton finds. To make it easier to drift off, skip late-night TV and web surfing, jot down your worries on a notepad so you can rest with a clear mind and try soothing stretches before turning in.

Claim some quiet time

Something to contemplate: Frequent meditation is as effective as medicine at reducing bouts of depression, according to research. Yoga is a great way to clear your mind, but if you’re not the oming type, try setting aside 10 minutes in the morning to do deep breathing. Or, if you’re like me and prefer to stay in motion, try this “walking meditation:” Stride slowly for 20 minutes sans iPod. Stare at the ground 6 feet ahead and focus on the soles of your shoes lifting and dropping.

See the light

Depressed people who were exposed to a bright light for an hour upon waking up in the morning for five weeks experienced a 54 percent improvement in symptoms, according to a study from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Try flicking on an energy light, such as the Philips goLITE BLU ($199), as you read your morning paper or answer your email. Spending more time outside can also lift your spirits and tame stress, according to research. Read a book on a park bench during your lunch break or bike to run your errands. Stuck inside? Try to sit near a window.

Phone a pal

Not surprisingly, lonely folks are more likely to be depressed, research from the University of Chicago suggests. To feel your happiest, aim to strengthen bonds with at least three close pals. Make buddy dates by automating them—agree to meet at the gym twice a week, or gather for a night of takeout and movie watching the first Friday of each month. You’ll keep your spirits high with a little help from your friends!


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