Depression has become pandemic in the modern industrial age. We often experience the competition, income disparity, fast food laden, sedentary, screen addicted, and isolated lifestyle of our “advanced culture” as a real drag. This lifestyle has put our brains into a “runaway stress response.” Our brains can easily get over activated into a flight or attack response in every day life. This stress can actually change the brain physically and make it prone to depression.
Even with the incredible plethora of anti-depressant drugs, depression in the U.S. has escalated three hundred percent over recent years. It is the leading mood disorder people seek treatment for and is the driver of over a million suicides each year.
Let’s pause for a second. We are talking here about clinical depression; that is, chronic depression that leads to ongoing feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and even suicidal ideation or behaviors. We are not talking about the healthy aspect of depression—the kind that is part of grieving a death, or a depression that is experienced at the end of a significant relationship, depression over political moves that throw millions into financial or health care insecurity, or depression that many felt at the beginning of the Iraq war. Depression around these kinds of things can be thought of as a sign of mental health, not mental illness. Depression can be a way of letting go, or of feeling the pain of others.
Some call neurotic, clinical depression a “disease of civilization.” Recent research has found that many indigenous tribal cultures have almost non-existent depression. Though they deal with many difficult life circumstances, they don’t suffer from this crippling mood disorder. What’s up with that?
Researchers at the University of Kansas determined six major lifestyle differences from tribal people and those of us living in the modern world. They termed this study TLC, or Therapeutic Life Change.
Here they are:
Exercise: Tribes don’t exercise. They live. Their daily activities provide all the movement their body requires. We are so sedentary in our modern lives we need to “exercise.” Getting up and moving is something we have to think about and will ourselves to do— its not built into our lifestyle. Even thirty minutes of brisk walking three times a week can make a change in brain chemistry where depression is concerned. Exercise is medicine for your brain— increasing dopamine and serotonin, mental alertness, and circulation.
Diet: The brain is made up mostly of fats. The fats in tribal diet include a balanced amount of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats with a 1 to 1 ratio. Most of our fats in modern life are Omega 6 fats which are inflammatory to the brain. An inflamed brain is a depressed brain. Often our modern diets are at a 17 to 1 ratio of Omega 6’s to Omega 3 fatty acids. Cutting down on Omega 6’s and taking Omega 3 supplements can be a step toward balancing brain chemistry, decreasing inflammation, and improving your mood.
Social Connection: Per the previous post (see The Roseto Lesson), connecting to others in real time is essential to mental health. Modern culture can be extremely isolating with people living alone, spending an inordinate amount of time in the “steel coffin” commuting to work, looking at screens, etc. Tribes live in continual community, connection, and intimacy with one another. I once talked to a depressed woman who lived in an extraordinarily beautiful home. She said, “When I moved away from my friends to this house I learned that you can be in the most beautiful place in the world and it means nothing without your friends.”
Sunlight: Seasonal depression is now well documented. When the sun goes away more people get depressed. Your brain needs sun exposure. Tribal members spend most of their time outdoors. We don’t. With modern housing and office buildings we can spend a huge amount of time indoors. Normal indoor light does not provide the brain’s need for light exposure. Regular, daily sun exposure for 30 minutes has been shown to have a significant impact on elevating mood. For those in cloudy climates a light box (available on Amazon) with a 10,000-lux light rating can be used as a substitute.
Sleep Hygiene: When you are living outdoors as a tribe member your brain knows when the sun goes down and its time for bed. Deep REM sleep is essential for your mood. With the advent of modern lighting and electronics, the modern brain does not know when the sun has gone down and its time to start excreting melatonin to prepare for sleep. To remedy this, turn down overhead lighting an hour before bed, get electronics out of the bedroom and shut down an hour before bed, keep the bed only for sleep and sex so your brain associates it with relaxation, and stay away from working night shifts. Also, try to go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time each day.
Anti-rumination skills: Tribe members have little time to ruminate on negative thoughts. There are things to do, plants to harvest, hunts to go on, water to bring, people to constantly interact with. In modern society we are often left to alone to ruminate for hours on negative thoughts that spiral out of control. Interrupting rumination is crucial to avoiding depression. Writing in a diary can be a basic skill in moving past negative thoughts. Tapping, Self-Compassion, and Inner child work can also be ways of breaking rumination (see previous posts: Tap Out Your Depression, Have Compassion for Yourself, and You Have a Child). Shared activity, exercise, or “engaging solo activity” like art and music can be effective ways of breaking rumination. If nothing else, change your scenery. Getting into nature can easily break negative thinking. There is actually bacteria present in nature that when inhaled improves the brain’s ability to produce dopamine.
For more on Therapeutic Lifestyle Change, visit
And check out this TED talk on TLC :