ANDREA PENAGOS L.Ac. 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY KRISTINE LO

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  • Andrea Penagos, L.Ac.

Embracing Our Suffering: 9 Tips for Healing and Moving Through Depression


According to the National Institute for Health, in any given year, approximately 6.9% of all adults over 18 years of age will cycle through at least one major depressive episode. Those who must navigate the trauma of racism, immigration, incarceration, poverty, and other systemic injustices on a daily basis are especially at risk of developing depression and other mental health disorders. While common, mental health challenges are widely stigmatized, preventing many from reaching out for the care they need. 

What does the term 'depression' mean? The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) defines depression as a grouping of five or more symptoms for a 2-week period that may include depressed mood, loss of pleasure and interest in activities, marked changes in weight, insomnia or hypersomnia, agitation or slowing of psychomotor functioning, fatigue or loss of energy, diminished ability to think or concentrate, and recurrent suicidal ideation.


Based on this definition, I’ll guess that many of us have experienced some, if not all, of these symptoms in some way, shape or form. Traversing a major life transition like losing a loved one, going through a break-up or a divorce, being laid off or changing jobs, moving to a new home or city, having a child, and being diagnosed with an illness, can understandably produce feelings of grief, sadness, overwhelm, anger, and disconnection.


If you’re currently moving through a mental health challenge and/or a destabilizing life transition, consider these 9 tips for supporting your mental health and encouraging slow, steady healing:


1. Get support and make use of the tools around you.

Once you’re ready, create a support team. Having compassionate, competent support around you can help you feel held, taken care of, and guided in ways that ‘going it alone’ might not. I believe in multi-pronged approaches to mental health that include a mix of tools including therapy, acupuncture, exercise, nutrition, spiritual practice, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, herbal medicine, and for some people, pharmaceutical medication. It’s your healing process and you choose your tools.


2. Identify your triggers and recognize your habit patterns.

Over time, it’s possible to develop an awareness of what triggers or habit patterns set off destabilizing energy in our bodies. Through therapy, mindfulness meditation and spiritual practice, many have been able to process their story, understand their triggers, cultivate compassion for themselves and others, and set appropriate boundaries when necessary. Cultivate your own ways of bringing awareness and having compassion for your triggers and habit patterns.


3. Get back to the basics.

Nutrition, rest, and exercise constitute the foundation of physical and emotional self-care whether you’re navigating mental health challenges or not. Prioritize eating regular, nutrient-rich meals, getting enough sleep, and moving your body every day to radically improve your physical and mental state.  


4. Mind your gut.

As much as 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the digestive tract. Research is now revealing the vital role of the gut’s microbiome in promoting and maintaining healthy, stable mood states. Altered “peripheral serotonin” levels impact not only the nervous system, but are also factors in the development of illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in organic vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean, free-range protein, and integrate probiotics like sauerkraut, kombucha and other fermented foods.


5. Get a physical.

If you’re feeling depressed or off-balance mentally, particularly if it’s for no specific emotional reason, get a physical and have your provider order lab tests. Anemia, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, thyroid imbalances, adrenal insufficiencies and other medical conditions have physiological and psychological effects that mimic mental health diagnoses. Addressing your underlying deficiencies or imbalances with supplements, herbs, dietary changes, or medication may be a key component to managing your mental health.


6. Find or create community.

When traversing through a mental health challenge or crisis, the tendency towards isolation is strong and can slow the healing process. Find, cultivate, or create a loving, compassionate environment where people are accepting and understanding of what you’re going through, and viceversa. Don’t give up on finding community that feels good - uplifting social interaction is a vital component of the recovery process.


7. Create a protocol or kit for triggering situations.

A creative way to confront depression is to craft a self-care protocol or kit for triggering situations. Consider constructing a kit with a self-directed protocol you follow in times of distress, phone numbers of people or hotlines you can call, affirmations or a prayer you can repeat, items that ground you like essential oils, crystals or amulets, and other stabilizing practices for times when you feel triggered. Getting centered after experiencing a trigger can be challenging, so having a kit with you that you can remember to pull out in times of crisis can be very helpful.


8. Embrace your emotions.

Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh shares with us the mindfulness practice of embracing our suffering and caring for it as if it was a small child. He invites us to repeat, “Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out, I smile towards my anger,” and “Breathing in, I know that grief is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my grief.” For a more in-depth exploration of this practice, I recommend reading the books "Anger" and "Fear", both by Thich Nhat Hanh.


9. Once you feel better, consider helping another person.

In 2012, I experienced a long and intense bout depression after a difficult life transition. I promised myself that once I felt better, I would use what I learned to help other people move through similar experiences. Overcoming and learning to manage a mental health challenge is a huge accomplishment and also an ongoing process, so consider sharing the gifts you found in the darkness to help support others who could benefit from your stories and strategies for healing and resilience.


Those of us who have struggled through grief, anger, sadness, isolation, disillusionment, and all other manifestations of depression, have also built tremendous strength to reach out for help, transform our suffering into resilience, heal ourselves, and make the best choices for our mental and physical wellness. Seek out support and community, cultivate compassion for your suffering, and take care of yourself. Your life is important, and know that you are not alone. 


Resources:

The National Alliance on Mental Illness

The Icarus Project

The Southern California Counseling Center 

The Relational Center

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1(800) 273-8255

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