Dr Renata Schoeman, member of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP), shares five ways to deal with depression

With as many as one in six South Africans suffering from anxiety, depression or substance abuse (excluding more serious conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia), Dr Renata Schoeman says now is the time to take stock and limit the chance of developing mental health-related illnesses.

1. Exercise

Dr Schoeman says that exercise is a powerful means to combat mild to moderate depression.

“It’s a natural mood enhancer and has an incredibly positive impact on emotions.”

She says that exercise releases endorphins that keep you energised, tires you physically for a good night’s sleep and improves your sense of well-being.

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“It promotes neuronal growth and reduces inflammation of the brain and these biological changes provide you with some calmness. One of the most important advantages of exercise is the positive influence it has on maintaining regular sleeping cycles. Mood and anxiety disorders can affect sleep negatively – while sleep disturbances can contribute to the development of mood and anxiety disorders.”

“Another advantage of exercise is that it creates the possibility of being socially active – in a healthy way. It’s the best way to relieve stress and tension and beats anxiety by helping you to focus on other things rather than be constantly consumed by the very things that are making you anxious,” says Dr Schoeman.

She says that those who suffer from ADHD can greatly benefit from exercise as it improves concentration and memory, through increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain. This is an important add-on to medication used for the treatment of ADHD – and may even reduce the medication needs of a patient.

“Exercise can actually make you cleverer! It sparks creativity and assists with quicker problem-solving abilities, allows for greater focus and concentration which in turns results in an increase in productivity. It also stimulates the growth of new neurons in memory areas in your brain such as the hippocampus.

She says once you are able to manage 30 minutes, five times a week, you can start looking at other self-care areas of your life to improve your health more completely.

2. Keep learning

“Your brain is geared for lifelong learning and the more we think, the better our brains function, regardless of age,” says Dr Schoeman.

She recommends boosting your education with activities such as the arts, crafts, travel, playing musical instruments and volunteering.

3. Watch what goes into your mouth

There’s a saying, ‘You are what you eat’.

Dr Schoeman says for a healthy mental state of mind, eating a balanced diet high in fibre, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins B and E, will reduce the risk of dementia, improve short-term memory loss, lifts one’s mood and learning ability, increase energy and concentration.

4. Make friends

The next step is socialising.

“Being happy is infectious and if you surround yourself with people that increase your levels of happiness, you will see a decrease in your perceived stress, in depression and even a decrease in heart disease,” says Dr Schoeman. “Physical affection improves one’s mood and laughter is the best medicine when it comes to mental health.”

Related: Affordable therapy for all: Making mental health matter

5. Hit the hay

Dr Schoeman says the final step is adequate sleep.

It boosts your immune system and keeps hormonal balances in check – which prevents obesity and diabetes.

Sufficient and regular sleep also prevents mental health problems such as depression, through boosting emotional resilience. Sleep is also very important for concentration, memory and learning, and even the prevention of dementia, as “waste products” that accumulates during waking hours are “flushed” away during sleep.

Start small

“In achieving equilibrium across one’s personal and professional lives, we need to make a few changes. But start small, the idea is not to overwhelm oneself,” says Dr Schoeman, “With each small change, you will note that other areas of your self-care journey will become natural as you move towards a mindful state of being a healthier you.”

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.