How Focusing On Your Mind And Body Can Be The Best Antidepressant

Eat well, feel well, be well

Photo via Getty Images

Two years ago, it made sense, to put it lightly, for me to go on antidepressants. I was in a rut, a miserable hole of self-loathing darkness with a sprinkling of social anxiety, and so my therapist suggested Wellbutrin. It helped; it gave me just enough energy to face the days I didn’t want to face and just enough balance to keep my professional life from falling off track. Over the course of my two years on antidepressants, I’ve also spent a lot of time working through my anxieties and depression triggers in talk therapy. So much so, I recently decided it was the right time for me to wean off the Wellbutrin. I felt like I was in control of my anxiety and had developed enough coping skills to battle whatever might come my way. As any medical professional should do, my therapist asked a lot of questions when I mentioned I was ready to go pill-free. How have I changed my life to better accommodate my capacity for complex moods? How do I nourish my body with foods that contribute to a calmer state? What physical strategies do I have for stress management and dopamine production?

As it turned out, I hadn’t really changed all that much in my life. I was relying on the medication to do the brunt of the work and expecting my body to just figure it out on the fly. My dopamine will just level out, right? Wrong, apparently. While one of the main reasons I wanted to go off my medication was because I hate having to remember to take a pill every day (and waiting in line at CVS along with it too), it was also because I wanted to be able to rely on my own devices for balance. To each his own though—some people stay on medication their whole lives, and that’s perfectly fine. But I had always meant it to be temporary, so the catalyst was more a question of “if not now, then when?”

Instead of a lower dose, my therapist first prescribed the following: “Change your lifestyle to maintain the optimal environment for a balanced, energized, stable life. Figure out what that means and then let’s talk.” Despite the fact that this felt like a pain-in-the-ass homework assignment that I’d have to complete without a textbook, I wanted to be done with the antidepressant part of my life, and I was willing to put some effort—and money—into making the changes. And so I worked with a nutritionist and a trainer to get my body healthy enough to handle my mind, constantly reminding myself that the two work together.

I looked at my life first as it was: On a good week, I would like to think that I spent 30 minutes being active 4 days out of 7 (I didn't). I ate whatever I wanted, which usually consisted of a combination of carbs and dairy. I went to sleep late and I slept in even later. Basically, all of those things needed to change.

A friend recommended I try Sakara to get started on a healthier meal plan. It’s a kind of Zen meal delivery service that’s already entirely prepared and, therefore, is foolproof healthy. Part of its appeal is probably psychosomatic: It’s hard not to feel chic and healthy when you start your morning with silica- and rose-infused water. Throughout the day, you work your way through a variety of mood-boosting foods that change the way your body feels. Just making the change to treat my body with higher quality food put me on the mental track to health, which was an important first step. Also, knowing that my money was going toward purchasing healthy food put pressure on me to stick with it and actually eat it.

Then it was time to look at my fitness habits. I hated working out. I did it just to do it, and it didn’t have much of an effect on me. It didn't give me energy; it didn’t give me endorphins. It made me tired and sweaty and, if I’m being honest, I only lasted for 30 minutes because that’s how long the Seinfeld episodes were that I watched. The kind of corporate gym I belonged to was drab and impersonal, and I had no idea if I was even doing things right. But then, I stumbled upon a gym in my neighborhood that is very intentionally the opposite of a corporate gym. It’s called Greys Gym and it’s situated in a residential brownstone; to enter, I walk through a path of lush plants. Greys operates as a personal training gym, and the best part it's shoeless (they believe that being barefoot helps you to strengthen your balance and be more connected to the ground and your body). Before joining, I talked to Greys owner Anthony Vallon for about an hour, and before even telling him what process I was going through, he explained to me the importance of making the gym experience a personal, mind-strengthening, and spiritual experience. In short: You can do your squats and have your namaste, too.

We decided to work together intensively for a month. He set me up with one of his trainers, a human hulk named Brad Lloyd who never let me say “I can’t.” Though I’m concerned that this might start to sound like a Yelp review, I can’t not mention how much this gym experience changed my perception of fitness and how important it is to find a gym that fits your vibe. Soon, my sessions became the highlights of my week. I never dreaded it and always left feeling lighter, strangely full of myself, and—most importantly—stronger, which is a word I would never before have used. Noticing the way my body and mind reacted to this physical conditioning gave me some serious mental strength to believe in myself and my inherent ability to improve. I had never understood why people went to the gym to let off steam; for me, it never worked that way. Instead, I always found myself running and suffocating from boredom, or just obsessively thinking about what I was worrying about earlier that day. I’d just be doing all this to the tempo of my run. But the type of circuit training I was doing at Greys absolutely muffled my mind in the most glorious way. It made everything outside the gym seem insignificant. I was working on getting stronger, and nothing was more important than that.

Over the course of this month, I began to feel more in tune with my body. I started waking up earlier and falling asleep easier. I started to see my body change and notice that I was willing and able to do more with it. But there was a downside. The fact is: I couldn’t afford to keep up with this particular wellness program. I’ve got student loans and I barely make more than a teenage babysitter, and while it was totally worth the one-month splurge, it was not a long-term plan for me. Like sure, if everyone could eat Sakara and work with a personal trainer every day, we’d all be walking on sunshine with super-toned calves and a big smile. So the new question for me became: How do I take all my experiences over the last month and incorporate them into my life? A life that involves over-scheduling and debt?

After checking back in with my doctor, I was given the go-ahead to stop taking antidepressants, with a reminder that it will not be a failure if I have to go back on medication. I religiously followed her taper-down plan because going off antidepressants can otherwise be incredibly dangerous, resulting in flu-like symptoms, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and a complete resurgence of depression. I wasn’t about to mess with that. During the first few days of my weaning plan, I didn’t feel much. I did my circuit training from home, a mix of calisthenics and a bike ride. I swapped my coffee for tea to manage my anxiety and added lemon and honey to boost my mood early in the morning. I made sure to eat protein, blue potatoes, and dark chocolate, take B12 vitamins, and sit in the sun for 30 minutes in the afternoon. Though I was pessimistically waiting for everything to crash down around me, it didn’t. Some days, I felt anxious, and I knew to drink chamomile tea and steer clear of caffeine and sugar. Other days, I felt a little low in energy and knew to force myself to do the plank position and a few jumping jacks or burpees to get my blood flowing. If I started to feel stressed, I’d go on a bike ride or listen to my new “Don’t fall into a depression” playlist.

It’s been over a month now, and the crash still hasn’t come. Had I not spend those 30 days learning about my body and my nutritional health and how important it was to be in touch with myself, I believe the crash might very well have arrived already. I might not have known what to do when I wake up with that fluttery the-world-is-ending feeling that arrives for no reason, on its own schedule. I wouldn’t have known to do a breathing meditation to slow my heart rate: Inhale for 5, hold for 6, exhale for 7. I wouldn’t have known to avoid the pastry craving that would only make me crash from the sugar a mere hour later. I wouldn’t have known to put a little rose water in my morning tea to calm me from the inside out.

Everyone is different, of course, but for me, going off anti-depressants without any changes, would have surely caused me to fall off track; I simply wouldn’t have had the tools that I now understand I so seriously need. It's like buying a complicated desk at Ikea, only to realize that you don’t have that stupid L-shaped Allen wrench that only they use. It’s all moot if you don’t have the right equipment or a strong plan. So, for now, I feel fully armed but aware that my current tools might eventually lose their effectiveness. And yet I know now that it won’t be a failure if I go back on medication, the only failure would have been not taking the time to get to know my mind and body, and get comfortable with the intersection between the two.