Sometimes we wake up with them, sometimes they occur suddenly and come from nowhere, and sometimes they have a definite cause; I am of course referring to bouts of melancholy. The Oxford Dictionary describes melancholy as ‘a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.’
When we are feeling melancholic, restless, reflective, hopeless, it can be difficult to fix, since the mood itself is holding us back from finding a solution. So, I’ve composed this list of 5 convenient and quasi-scientific remedies for (short-term) gloom that you can adopt, right now.
1. Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing
We know deep down that spending time with nature can be soothing, and now science knows it too. Shinrin-yoku is the Japanese and South Korean activity of relaxing in nature. By studying this practice, scientists have gathered some convincing data to support the many proposed health benefits.
Shinrin-yoku translates to ‘forest bathing’ or ‘taking in nature’s atmosphere’, and it is promoted by the Japanese government as part of a well-rounded health regime. Research carried out in Japan over the last ten years supports shinrin-yoku as an effective curative and preventative treatment for stress, depression, stroke, and various other cardiovascular diseases.
Going for a walk in a forest, the bush, or a park can reduce your cortisol (stress hormone) and blood pressure greatly, as compared to a similar walk in a city environment. Even sitting in nature or simply looking at trees can elicit many of these beneficial effects.
One study took anxiety and mood measurements of participants before and after ashinrin-yoku session. Participants who had greater stress before the session scored a greater drop in their stress afterwards, suggesting that nature has a greater influence on those who need it most.
Shinrin-yoku is beneficial for many reasons. Many plants produce air-borne chemicals, one group of chemicals called phytoncides stops plants from being eaten by fungi and insects. By spending time outdoors with plants and their volatile chemicals, us humans can inoculate ourselves with a healthy dose of these phytoncidal antimicrobials. Some phytoncides can also help the activity of our immune system soldiers, our lymphocytes. Even being outside in the absence of plants can ensure you get adequate vitamin D, a vital nutrient for proper musculoskeletal health.
I did suggest this list was convenient, so if you don’t even want to leave the house – bring nature to you! Research shows that having indoor plants can greatly reduce blood pressure and increase your productivity and mood. This brief TED talk suggests the most efficient, oxygen producing plants.
If I find myself in an inexplicable funk, I turn straight to my treatment of choice: funky tunes. It turns out that musical treatment is more common place than you might think. Music therapy, as it is known, has been used as a treatment for depression, and is also a common treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
There have been limited studies on the effectiveness of music in treating depression, but most of them have had positive results. A 2008 ‘review study’ compared all of the research that used music therapy to treat depression. They identified five studies that fulfilled the criteria for a legitimate test; four out of those five studies showed a positive effect of music on the subjects’ moods.
The review concluded that music therapy is a feasible treatment for depression, but deserves further, more concrete investigation.
Music therapy as a treatment for Alzheimer’s is effective in reducing the ‘immediacy’ or intensity of the environment for the patient. Music is also effective at bringing up associated memories of previous familiar experiences. Similar effects might play a role for music therapy in other scenarios. Just make sure the tunes are in the major key, though.
3. Remedial contact
In the right context, physical contact can be beneficial for our health and well-being. Whether from a masseuse or a family pet, bodily contact can be demonstrably comforting.
A 2005 study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience found that massage therapy can alleviate stress (lower cortisol levels), increase dopamine production, and also increase the level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with positive states of mind.
Another small-scale 2006 study showed similar, but less concrete results for auto-massaging. The study showed that massaging one’s own feet can reduce perceived stress levels, at least for middle-aged women (the study’s participants).
Other studies with similarly small sample sizes have shown that mother to infant massages might increase the bond between mother and child, suggesting a possibly effective treatment for postnatal depression.
Massages may or may not rub out our melancholy – the evidence is fragmented. However, you could stand on even firmer ground if you cited evidence from the ‘love from pets’ literature.
Pets can improve the well-being of various demographics, especially the elderly. Having contact with an animal can reduce stress and anxiety prior to operations. And, as I’ve covered in a recent story (here), owning a family pet is associated with a longer lifespan.
Laughing does wonders for our bodies, and there are plenty of studies to support that fact. Conduct a study on laughter and its benefits for our health, then title it something other than ‘Is Laughter Really the Best Medicine?’ and you’ll be a pioneer. Further, we get physical and mental health benefits from laughter, regardless of what we’re laughing about.
Whether we laugh to relieve ourselves of other strong emotions (say, post-catastrophic ‘too soon’ jokes), whether we laugh to signal that we understand the joke and are thus ‘intellectually respectable’, or, if we laugh because our expectations have been manipulated – our body still loves it!
The psychological benefits of laughing also hold true if the laughter is elicited by either an external entity (like a stand-up comedian) or by ourselves. Note: try to favour the former when in public.
Not only does laughter lift our own mood but it also signals to others that we appreciate a good laugh. Laughter also just happens to be contagious. It doesn’t get better than that.
This list is about convenience, so if you don’t know where to start on the humour front, why not try watching or listening to some stand-up comedy. Stand-up is easy to find on the World Wide Web, and there’s likely at least one comical gal or guy to float your boat. If you’re struggling to find someone you like, try Googling a ‘top comedian list’.
5. The ultimate solution to melancholia
This is the best, most substantiated solution to feeling down, but it also happens to be the least convenient: exercise.
Exercise is extremely effective at balancing mood and reducing rates of depression and anxiety. Exercise training might help with depression at many scales of severity: nonclinical, clinical, and long-term. In one study, poor exercise regimes were no better than placebos in treating depression, while training regimes that followed the US health recommendations were effective treatments for most forms of depression.
Not only is exercise great in itself, but, a lack of physical exercise might also be associated with some mental disorders; i.e. exercise can be both curative and preventative.
The mechanisms behind these benefits are not completely understood. A 2009 review of the literature states, “The mechanisms responsible for exercise-related improvements in depression and anxiety disorders are not all known, and it is most likely to be a complex interaction of psychological and neurobiological mechanisms under-lying, mediating and/or moderating these effects.”
As well as being great for your physical health, getting the right amount of exercise might also help improve your memory and general academic performance.
Well, how much exercise do we need? The Harvard School of Public Health recommends getting half an hour of moderate-intensity exercise each weekday, at least. But, the more exercise, the better.
For some more examples of exercise’s benefits for depression and health in general, you can listen to this informative interview.
This is the end of my list of ‘convenient and quasi-scientific remedies for melancholy’. Thankfully, many of these activities can be combined: why not download some comedic podcasts and go for a nature stroll? Or, why not go for a music-fuelled run with your dog or unwilling cat? The funk-bucking options are endless.
Shinrin-yoku: Morita, E., Fukuda, S., Nagano, J., Hamajima, N., Yamamoto, H., Iwai, Y., Nakashima, T., Ohira, H., and Shirakawa, T. (2007) Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public Health, 121(1): 54-63
Music therapy: Maratos, A.S., Gold, C., Wang, X., and Crawford, M.J. (2008) Music therapy for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev., 23(1): CD004517
Remedial contact: Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., and Kuhn, C. (2005) Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. Int J Neurosci., 115(10): 1397-1413
Lee, Y.M. (2006) Effect of self-foot reflexology massage on depression, stress responses and immune functions of middle aged women. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi, 36(1): 179-188
Onozawa, K., Glover, V., Adams, D., Modi, N., and Kumar, R.C. (2001) Infant massage improves mother–infant interaction for mothers with postnatal depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 63(1-3): 201-207
Exercise/quote source: Ströhle A. (2009) Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders. J Neural Transm, 116: 777-784