Time-tested tips for overcoming depression on the digital nomad journey and after.
When I first moved to Bali many years ago, while still in the honeymoon stage, I came across a flyer in a sunny cafe that read “Even in paradise, depression and anxiety can happen”. I clearly remember dismissing the thought that anyone could possibly be down for long, surrounded by palm trees, warm ocean waves and healthy food options at every turn.
Fast forward to a year later, I was spending most of my day in bed at a cheap guesthouse, curtains drawn all-day. I’d get up just to force myself to a yoga class, have a carb-heavy lunch and/or dinner (depending on when I had managed to drag myself out of the room) and then right back into my dark room.
I was hiding from everyone I knew, eating more sugar and caffeine than I normally had in a week and oftentimes crying in the shower. The end of a relationship and lack of direction in my life and career had started to tip me into an all too familiar downward spiral…
Depression is a dark beast and if the recent spate of suicides in the media by people seemingly in a place of enviable success, wealth and social standing – Avicii, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade are enough to remind us that Depression doesn’t discriminate. Having survived depression for many years, I finally began to reorient my lifestyle to preempt these downward spirals that end in the painful depths of darkness.
As digital nomads, we are the captains of our own ship. Truth is we don’t always know the destination and/or how or how long it will take to get there. This makes it easy to feel all alone in the vast ocean. The oftentimes nomadic nature of our lifestyles makes it hard to set stabilizing anchors in the form of long-term responsibilities, being part of a community and making solid friendships.
It’s also all too easy in the name of being your own boss, to work too hard and for too long or go the other extreme and party too much. All factors point towards a common path of burnout, mental or physical, often both.
5 Steps to halting and reversing the downward spiral
When we are depressed, we are often stuck in an obsessive negative mental pattern which renders us helpless and eventually immobilizes us (thus the often quoted symptom of being unable to get out of bed). Psychologists call it rumination when we replay the failure/trauma/trigger over and over in our minds and in the process get paralyzed by the emotions that flood us.
To goal here is: Move more, think less. In depression’s case, the less thinking the better. It doesn’t matter if you just get out of your room and walk down to the first cafe you see. Make sure you move. The sweatier the movement, the better. Muay Thai, surfing, yoga with arm balances. I tend to go for those sports that if I’m sucked back into thinking, there are immediate and sobering consequences (i.e falling off a wave, getting hit in Muay Thai). It literally forces you to get out of your head and be in the moment. Also, exercise in a group setting like yoga, cross fit or surfing helps kill two birds with one stone by also getting you in a social setting which often helps to improve mood and motivation.
Once you’ve moved your body, you feel better about yourself. To explain the effects scientifically, exercise releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins from the brain and other parts of the nervous system, and these fight pain and stress.You feel 1% stronger mind and body and this feeling compounds every time to help you regain inner strength. The key here is small and consistent wins.
Exercising also helps with sleeping which is one thing that depression usually disrupts. Either you’re not sleeping because you cannot stop worrying or like me you sleep all day to escape the painful reality. Exercise tires you out so your body can reset its internal clock and burn off excess energy that is being wasted by overthinking.
2. SOCIAL CONNECTION
Not isolating is the most important step, next to movement in stemming the downward spiral. For many years, every time I started the downward spiral, I would withdraw from my friends and community. I just wanted to sit alone and beat myself up over a tub of ice cream. Depression is a liar and it tells you that when you’re depressed and sad, you are boring or that people will notice those extra slices of cake on your hips and you’re better off sitting alone in your room thinking about all the things that make you unworthy.
To break out of this negative spiral, we need social contact, so reach out to loved ones who can break the endless negative thoughts and encourage you to do things you enjoy.
These days, I tell my friends when I am unusually quiet on social media or socially to check in on me. Spending time with a friend forces you to dress up, engage with others and get much-needed perspective. The good thing about being in a place like Bali is that you can meet people out of your normal social circle since there are so many tourists and short-term visitors.
Sometimes it helps to meet new people when you’re depressed because you are less concerned that they are judging or comparing you with ‘the normal you’. Also, people are usually on vacation or traveling and are more relaxed and social, making it easier to meet people. Just paying someone a compliment, chatting over a coffee or sharing thoughts about the yoga class you just did is helpful to inject some much-needed joy into your days and prevent isolation during depression.
3. GOOD NUTRITION
If you are pumping diesel fluid into your tank, even a high-performance Ferrari will break down eventually. I don’t normally care for dessert, but when I’m depressed, I can eat a slice or two of cake and bags of chips a day or more.
It was depression that first introduced me to the reality of emotional eating. I was eating when I felt sad and lonely and not because I was hungry. I was reaching for the sweets, chips and fried foods for the instant mood boost but paying for it later when I felt sluggish, bloated and guilty.
Avoid sugar, caffeine, alcohol as these stimulants cause a temporary feeling of energy and happiness but lead to crashes that you have to compensate for. The heavy feelings of shame and guilt that often accompanies it makes it twice as hard to get unstuck.
Regaining awareness and control over obsessive thoughts is the key to breaking out of the downward spiral. But in the beginning, if it’s too difficult, start with moving meditation like yoga or running or squeeze in a 5-minute breathing practice after a workout when your mind is more calm. This begins to create space in between the avalanche of negative and obsessive thoughts which over time helps you shift back into balance between mind and heart.
Writing 3 things I was grateful for each night is often my smallest win during depression. Simple things like being grateful for the sunny weather or delicious meal today. What we are doing here is retraining the mind to focus on the good things. Like a muscle, gratitude grows the more we train ourselves to find the silver lining.
Focus on the small wins. Its about retraining perspective and limiting the time in your own warped, negative thought spiral. Get out of your head, into the body. Feel more, think as little as possible when depressed. Other people have reported success with life coaching, therapy and volunteering. Each again help provide a vehicle to regain perspective, self-worth and direction.
Depression treatment is highly personal to each individual since the beliefs and triggers are different for each sufferer. However, these 5 tips address the commonality of this unwelcome guest. By resisting the pull of this dis-ease to stem movement, connection and love, your chances of building a solid ground by which to climb out of the dark hole of depression becomes possible.
If all else fails, I’d recommend reaching out to a hotline or signing up for a life coach, yoga/wellness retreat, teacher training or work exchange in a healthy environment. Anything which can help to force structure and support till you can regain some ground to implement the steps above.