Monthly Archives: December 2015

Exercise is a natural anti-depressant

Our modern western lifestyle, and particularly following industrialisation over 100 years ago, means that we have become much less physically active.   Our great grandparents had to be active just to carry out their everyday life.

Exercise shouldn’t be a chore!  Rather than jogging or going to the gym, consider things like gardening, dancing, or walking in nature.  It is important to find an activity you ENJOY, and to do something quickly enough so that you raise your heart rate (aerobic exercise), as it is then that the “happy” chemicals called endorphins are released into our body and make us feel good.

The Royal college of Psychiatrists state on their website that “if you keep active, you are:

  • less likely to be depressed, anxious or tense
  • more likely to feel good about yourself
  • more likely to concentrate and focus better
  • more likely to sleep better
  • more likely to cope with cravings and withdrawal symptoms if you try to give up a habit such as smoking or alcohol
  • more likely to be able to keep mobile and independent as you get older
  • possibly less likely to have problems with memory and dementia.”

Tips on getting started:

  • It is vital to pick an activity that you ENJOY
  • Any exercise is better than none.
  • Don’t start suddenly – build more physical activity into your life gradually, in small steps.

How well does exercise work for depression?

For mild depression, physical activity can act as a natural anti-depressant, and be as (or more) effective for some people than medication. In some areas in the UK, GPs (family doctors) can prescribe exercise.

Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week can significantly improve depression symptoms. But smaller amounts of activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — can make a difference.  (ref: Royal college psychiatrists).  Moderate exercise is best, such as the equivalent of walking fast whilst you can still talk to someone.

The mental health benefits of exercise may last only if you stick with it over the long term — another good reason to focus on finding activities you enjoy.

Why does exercise work?

  • It helps to release feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters and endorphins) into the brain, which can ease depression. Brain cells use these chemicals to communicate with each other, so they affect your mood and thinking.
  • Exercise can stimulate other chemicals in the brain called “brain derived neurotrophic factors” (BDNF). These help new brain cells to grow and develop. Moderate exercise seems to work better than vigorous exercise. BDNF seems to reduce harmful changes in the brain caused by extreme stress.
  • Harder exercise (perhaps needed to fight or flight from danger) can help to dispel the physical effects of a trauma, loss, shock or crises as it helps reduce adrenalin and produces endorphins. Animals in the wild naturally do this by fleeing from or fighting danger.
  • Exercise can also reduce risks of high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis and cancer.

Exercise can also help you:

  • Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence and help you to feel more in control.
  • Take your mind off worries. Exercise is a distraction that can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression.
  • Get more social interaction. Exercise may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others.
  • Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage anxiety or depression is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how badly you feel, or hoping anxiety or depression will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.

How do I get started — and stay motivated?

Starting and sticking with an exercise routine can be a challenge. Here are some steps that can help. Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise program to make sure it’s safe for you.

  • Identify what you enjoy doing. Figure out what type of physical activities you’re most likely to do, and think about when and how you’d be most likely to follow through. Do what you enjoy to help you stick with it.
  • Get your mental health provider’s support. Talk to your doctor or other mental health provider for guidance and support.
  • Set reasonable goals. Your mission doesn’t have to be walking for an hour five days a week. Think realistically about what you may be able to do. Tailor your plan to your own needs and abilities rather than trying to meet unrealistic guidelines that you’re unlikely to meet.
  • Don’t think of exercise as a chore. If exercise is just another “should” in your life that you don’t think you’re living up to, you’ll associate it with failure. Rather, look at your exercise schedule the same way you look at your therapy sessions or medication — as one of the tools to help you get better.
  • Address your barriers. Figure out what’s stopping you from exercising. If you feel self-conscious, for instance, you may want to exercise at home. If you stick to goals better with a partner, find a friend to work out with. If you don’t have money to spend on exercise gear, do something that’s virtually cost-free, such as walking. If you think about what’s stopping you from exercising, you can probably find an alternative solution.
  • Prepare for setbacks and obstacles. Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how small. If you skip exercise one day, that doesn’t mean you can’t maintain an exercise routine and may as well quit. Just try again the next day.

author: Wendy Bramham



Why is it so hard to be happy?
I have been giving much thought to this question lately. Is the goal of life to be happy, or is there a better way of looking at things? What affects our ability to find lasting happiness, and how can we each find meaning for our lives?

Does society have a part to play?
In the 1980s I travelled extensively in South-East Asia and was able to mingl
laughtere with locals as if I was one of them. I met people who were poor and yet seemed strikingly content in ways I hadn’t seen in the West. Their work and community were local, and this gave them a sense of belonging, inherited traditions and support; and they were relatively untouched by media networks, and consumerism. Conversely, the West, with its numerous distractions and overwhelming information, constantly bombards us with the idea that the next great job, cosmetic, romance or holiday will make us feel worthy, attractive, successful, and, finally, happy. And we’re not!

What’s the alternative?
 Unlike so-called ‘primitive’ societies, modernity favours doing rather than being; activity not stillness; individualism before community; reason more than emotion; instant gratification over waiting, and, now, virtual connections over face-to-face contact. We are embedded in the physical world in which everything changes and we have to grab on to whatever security we can find before it is lost or dies. I believe that part of the human condition is to experience (consciously or unconsciously) a sense of inner “lack”, and the more our self-esteem is fragile, the more we will be prone to compulsive striving for something outside of ourselves.  Therefore, we miss a connection with a ‘second reality’ which is the inter-connectivity of all life.  Some would call this: soul, nature, tao or universal energy, and it is constant, limitless and undying.  Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, called it the “collective unconscious”. The holistic health and spiritual educator, William Bloom, defines this missing link as “connection with the wonder and energy of all life”(1). And it is through this deeper connection with ourselves, others, our activities and life in general – that I believe ‘happiness’ can be found.

But how?
Our physical lives, and our connection with a second, non-physical reality, are both important.  However, if we are only in the physical it is difficult to experience contentment because we know that loss or death will take away what we have in the end. But if we can also connect with our deepest core – the soul, if you like, or the authentic Self – that is already complete and which exists at a non-material level, then we might begin to access greater meaning, purpose and fulfillment. Personally I do this through simple things such as being in nature, sunshine, solitude and dancing.  For others it might be through music, art, human intimacy, gardening, yoga or mindfulness practice or being with animals. 

Log off! 
I was at a spa recently where, at the entrance, a sign read: “time to switch off your phone and come to your senses”. Logging off is a simple method for opening up the possibility of accessing the ‘second reality’ but is a lot easier to say than do. The digital world keeps us switched on, drawing us out of our inner experience, and supplying false comparisons with others’ seemingly glossy lives on facebook or instagram. It’s hard to slow down and experience our inner selves because that is where we might encounter our past pain and true feelings.

Therapy helps
Therapy can help to understand and resolve past or present traumas, losses and unconscious patterns that undermine our sense of “self” and authenticity. Many of us also need help with living in the second reality and accessing a deeper level of happiness, meaning and contentment than we have previously known. For many people therapy provides a space in which to work through the questions like ‘what do I really want?’ and ‘what will give my life meaning?’, and to find our own personal keys for transcending the everyday and connecting with the ‘wonder and energy of all life’.

There is not a great deal we can do about the culture in which we live. However, we can slow down enough to reflect on our personal values, meaning, purpose and integrity, which in turn can help us resist society’s pressures. Striving or grasping seems to drive happiness away from us.  We need to understand that “happiness” is almost always transient; like the waves of life’s inevitable gains and losses. But while life is tossing us around on the surface of the ocean maybe we can connect with the bedrock beneath the waves, where stillness, peace of mind and authenticity can be found. I believe that here we can access personal values, meaning and purpose; and have a better chance of experiencing moments of joy and happiness.

Author:  Wendy Bramham MBACP (Snr Accred)
Editor: Briony Martin MBACP
December 2015

This blog is an abbreviated version of a longer article Wendy hopes to publish in a professional journal.

1. Bloom, W., 2011, The Power of modern spirituality, Piatkus, p. 6
Further reading

HH Dalai Lama & Cutler, H.C., 1998, The Art of Happiness, Coronet Books
Epstein, M., 2001, Going on Being, Broadway Books
Fordham,  F., 1991, An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology, Penguin Psychology
Hollis, J., 1998, The Eden Project, in Search of the Magical Other, Inner City Books

James, O., 2007, Affluenza, Vermilion
Somers, B. & Brown, G., 2002, Journey in Depth, Archive Publishing
Tolle, E., 1999, The Power of now, Hodder & Stoughton
Williamson, M., 1992, A Return to Love, Thorsons
Yalom, I. D., 1989, Love’s Executioner and other tales of Psychotherapy, Penguin Books