Depression and other mental health disorders have gained more publicity recently. Therapy has become less taboo, and influential people have discussed their experiences of mental health challenges.
As a therapist, I have seen more people seeking support to process their experiences and improve their mental health. However, many people don’t realize their environment may be impacting their mental health. Sometimes changing or having awareness of how our environment or lifestyle impacts depression can improve our experiences vastly. Here are some environmental and lifestyle factors that influence depression, plus a few suggestions for managing them.
1. Access to natural light
A common environmental factor associated with increased symptoms of depression is lack of access to sunlight. The American Psychological Association has recognized how common it is to experience worsened mood due to lack of sunlight. They’ve designated a type of depression to describe this experience: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Most people experience SAD during the winter months when sunlight is less prominent, but it can happen in any season.
SAD can be managed by increasing access to natural or artificial sunlight. If possible, spend time outdoors during the sunniest parts of the day, open your blinds, use a sun lamp, or increase intake of Vitamin D (with the support of a physician and/or therapist) to support depression management.
According to science journalist Knvul Sheikh, noise has been recognized as a common environmental stressor that can worsen depression symptoms. Noise, defined as unwanted sound, can take away from the sounds that we want to hear, such as music, conversation, or nature. When noise is present, we utilize more energy to focus on tuning out the noise which increases our stress levels. Increased stress levels contribute to worsened depression.
A relatively unknown factor that can impact depression and mental health symptoms is pollution. According to Isobel Braithwaite, a researcher for the WHO, air pollutant particles can reach the brain through the nose and blood. This leads to brain inflammation and damage to the cells that support stress hormone production. If those cells are damaged, our abilities to manage stress are diminished, meaning stress will have a larger impact on our mental health. Additionally, areas that experience more air pollution tend to have higher rates of poverty, which directly impacts rates of depression.
If you live in an area that has high pollution, manage exposure by using an air filter, avoiding smoking or fireplaces, and reducing your own pollution production by walking, cycling, or taking public transportation. It may also be useful to talk to your primary care physician if you are impacted by air pollution.
Another factor that can impact mental health is being at higher altitudes. In the United States, the mountain west is home to some of the happiest states. However, they also have some of the highest rates of depression and suicide. Higher rates of depression and suicide are attributed to lower levels of oxygen.
According to Brent Kious, a psychiatrist at the University of Utah, lower levels of oxygen may cause our brain to relegate less energy to the parts of our brains that regulate reasoning and emotion control. This is likely due to these parts of our brains being the least important for survival. If it comes down to oxygenating the brain stem (which allows us to breathe) or the frontal lobe (which allows us to problem solve), our brains will oxygenate the brain stem.
If you live or vacation at a higher altitude, it is important to ensure you are getting enough oxygen and appropriate nutrition. According to Dr. Perry Renshaw, a psychiatrist at the University of Utah, increased creatine intake has been useful for those with treatment resistant depression. Additionally, if you find that you are regularly under-oxygenated, you may want to try an oxygen bar which is a space to intentionally take-in more oxygen. As always, it is best to consult with your physician before making any changes.
5. Substance use
A final environmental factor that impacts depression is lifestyle related. Substance use can have a large impact on depression. Various substances impact depression levels differently. For example, alcohol is a natural depressant and caffeine is a natural stimulant. If you are prone to depression, drinking alcohol or using other depressants will likely lead to feeling low after consuming alcohol. Similarly, if you use a stimulant like caffeine, you may initially feel positive emotions or improved symptoms. Later on, however, you may experience a more severe low mood when the stimulant effect lessens. More information about how various substances impact mental health can be found here.
Each of our bodies reacts to substances differently. If you notice that you are prone to low mood or have depression, it may be valuable to observe how various substances contribute to your mental health. Taking a week or more away from substances may be a useful trial to better understand how substances impact your mood.
There are numerous aspects that contribute to our mental health experiences. The various aspects discussed above connect environmental factors and depression, but they’re rarely the single underlying contributor to mental health challenges. However, building awareness of what contributes to your mental health experience is key to managing it. If anything discussed above resonates with you, consider using some of the tools provided to improve your mental health.