The 5 percent solution for depression.

Via Ricardo das Neves
on Mar 28, 2011
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Update: Moderate exercise not only treats, but prevents depression: This is the first longitudinal review to focus exclusively on the role that exercise plays in maintaining good mental health and preventing the onset of depression later in life (

Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors: Who would pass up the opportunity of saying that mouthful on a regular basis?

Well, okay, anybody who isn’t a biochemistry nerd would.

But in case you don’t know, it’s a class of drug that throws some light in the amazing ways in which the brain works…and helps anyone immobilized by a clinical depression start to function like a normal person.

Now, I’m a yoga teacher, and yoga teachers are known for pushing holistic solutions, not psychotropic drugs.

But what if you suffered from a crippling depression because the chemicals your brain cells use to communicate with one another aren’t working—as in, a cell sends a message to its neighboring cell, and the latter doesn’t have the ability to read it before the chemicals used for sending the message are recycled?

Seratonin is one of those messenger chemicals; re-uptake refers to the process where a cell reabsorbs the chemicals it used for communicating with the next one, and selectively inhibiting the reuptake of seratonin, as much of a mouthful as that is, means that the seratonin gets to float between those cells a lot longer, thereby giving the next cell much more of a chance to get the message.

And when it gets the message, a funny thing happens: you aren’t depressed any more.

The yoga teacher in me wants someone who’s depressed not to take a pill but to breathe more, to move more, to sleep better and to get a lot more nurturing. But that’s because, while I have been depressed during certain phases in my life, I have never been clinically depressed, which is something vastly different. We’re talking about feeling like you’re in a hole you can never hope to claw your way out of. We’re talking feeling so down that the thought of rising from bed feels overwhelming. We’re talking a complete inability to take care of oneself.

We’re talking not wanting to go on living.

So I humbly take off my hat to those folks who experience that, and say that while I would hold your hand and try to give you uplifting tools, I would have no idea what the hell I was doing, and might do more harm than good with my good intentions. Those folks might only begin to get some breathing room and apply the tools I have once they have in their system some SSRI’s or whatever latest wonder drug exists to balance brain chemistry.

Now, if your significant other just left you, or you’ve awakened to the realization your life is the manure that ought to be fertilizing someone’s lawn, or you haven’t been called back for the job you so desperately wanted and knew were perfectly suited for, then that’s a run-of-the-mill depression, and for that, may I submit for your consideration The 5% Solution.

“5% Solution” stems from the fact that whenever I suggested something to a dear friend of mine who suffers from occasional bouts of depression, she would say, “Yeah, I tried that for a while, and it didn’t work” – and I came to realize that yes, one single thing may not work long-term, but it may be 5% of the answer…which, together with a bunch of other 5 percents, might amount to the active self-nurturing that tip the scales to the good side. And if on the one hand depression is a vicious circle where you feel diminishing ability for self-nurturing, on the other hand success with the behaviors of self-nurturance (even small successes) can snowball into transcending the depression.

For these two reasons (not one single thing is likely to pull anyone up from depression; and small successes will tend to reinforce each other), here are the bunch of 5% steps that consistently applied tip the scales in your favor:

5% using a dawn simulator to wake up slowly and naturally in the morning
This makes a significant difference compared to the drawn-out grogginess and adrenalin-induced grumpiness that can go with waking up to an alarm.

5% using a neti pot daily to enhance how much oxygen you take in through clear sinuses
Breathing well (and, specifically, breathing through the nose), makes for a significantly calmer mind and more level mood, not to mention higher innate energy levels.

5% getting active exercise – preferably in the morning or by midday, but any exercise at all is good
For a host of biochemical reasons, exercise alone can overcome a lot of physical and mental problems. The best kind of exercise to engage in? One that you actually enjoy.

5% flossing, brushing, showering, all that good stuff
This is in the category of the obvious, but beyond the slight mood uplift of not smelling or feeling like a tramp, it also keeps a bunch of pathogens at bay, which don’t further tax an immune system that’s already struggling to stay in the game

5% drinking 8 glasses of water a day
Yadda yadda yadda. Everybody talks about this for health and better skin, right? I don’t have hard evidence for this, but I believe that an abundance of water literally has the ability to clear emotions in the body. Do taper off around 6 p.m. for better sleep. Oh, yeah, and for the people who always ask – it really does mean water, not coffee or beer.

5% eating small, balanced, frequent meals (every 4 hours, starting within one hour of waking up), avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates to maintain evenness of mood
For anyone who hasn’t noticed, sugar and refined carbs are a huge contributing factor to mood fluctuation. Have steady quality food (you know, food that actually feeds you), and you remove one important source of imbalance.

5% eating new, interesting things
Think tastebud-titillating flavors like the Thai coconut and lemon grass soup known as Tom Kah, yam fries, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi – anything that feels new and exotic to the tastebuds and gives you something to look forward to on a daily basis has mood-enhancing capacities.

5% eating foods that are known to have anti-depressant qualities
Chillies, jalapeno peppers as well as spices of Thai, Indian, and/or Asian provenance not only have antioxidant qualities, but they stimulate the release of the very brain chemicals that raise your mood.

5% spending time somewhere where there are trees and grass
Forget about “spending time in nature” – it brings up thoughts of plans and clearing time in your schedule and all those other things that always get postponed. A 15-minute break spent outside at the nearest park every day will do. More if time permits.

5% daily solitude
Some people need this more than others as a means of collecting their thoughts and emotions and feeling grounded. It might be five minutes in the bedroom or it might be a 90-minute walk by the water – reset and replenish with the right amount and you’ll find that solitude is a solace for the soul. Alliteration and all.

5% immersion in beautiful or awe-inspiring things
A friend of mine loves astronomy magazines, exhibits or TV programs – the universe in all its grandeur brings out that awe. But it could be holding a baby. Or watching gigantic clouds move above. Or seeing athletes play at the edge of human ability. Or becoming lost in dance. Or feeling a piece of music intensely. Or walking amid larger-than-life statues at a museum. Experiencing, acknowledging and recognizing awe-inspiring things that shift around often enough (so as not to become desensitized to them) can change your experience from “just getting by” to “there is a lot of beauty in life.”

5% keeping objects around you that bring you pleasure to touch, smell or see
A pleasantly-shaped stone, a candle, a seashell, a vase, a bottle of perfume, a ring, a wallet crafted just so, a pen with perfectly-balanced weight, a cup you love – it need not be anything fancy, just a close-by touchstone to remind you of your personal connection to beauty.

5% dancing and/or playing
Think 5-year-old kid here. Most people lose or forget their ability to play when they reach adulthood. But 5, 10, 20 minutes a day dancing or playing for its own sake decreases the adrenal hormones associated with stress and releases a plethora of other ones that regenerate your body and mind. For this to work, you must enjoy the play tremendously: 20 minutes of minesweeper on the computer doesn’t count unless it transports you to the rapturous levels of excitement that prompt your co-workers to ask if you’re feeling okay.

5% getting into a story you enjoy
Whether through reading or listening or film-viewing, becoming immersed in someone else’s story adds a break and fresh perspective to life. I suggest sticking with fiction for best results. Humor doesn’t hurt either. And if you don’t feel like reading anything humorous right now, well, go ahead and pick up that suspense novel. No, not the one with the high body count – that’s not going to uplift you and renew your faith in the human condition.

5% taking a step (any step) daily toward a long-term plan; or, if you can’t think of anything, help someone every day – a friend, a stranger, an animal.
These are two ways in which life acquires meaning: working towards a goal, and making a difference in someone’s life if through no other way than making them feel seen, heard, or cared for.

5% connecting with friends
To state the obvious, any challenges become more bearable when shared with people who care about you. (Have a Twitter or Facebook account? You’ve got this covered… not.) And while a text message, email or phone call are better than nothing, in-person interaction with friends or family who see, hear and care about you increase tenfold that sense of connection.

5% being held
That effect of lowering stress hormones while raising health-promoting ones isn’t just the realm of playing. Hug often and the results are the same. If you don’t have a significant other, hug friends when you see them. If you’ve never been one to do that and your coworkers are now dodging you in the hallways, you can say you were adopted and just discovered your birth parents are Italian… Seriously, though, if you’re not a touchy-feely type of person, or you feel awkward with hugging people, you can always hold a dog, or a cat, or a baby… or your pet hippopotamus.

5% sex
This one’s a little tricky. Sex tends to magnify whatever emotions we already have – meaning that if you’re happy, it’ll reinforce the happiness, but if you’re feeling down, there’s the chance that it may open you up to further sadness. Then again, it may just open you up to release emotions and eventually let them dissolve. If being close to someone is hard the way you feel now (or it’s tied up with conflicting emotions), it might be better to fly solo, as they euphemistically say, before adding the many emotional variables of having someone else be part of the equation.

5% having a pre-bedtime routine of 30 minutes
No, we’re not talking the evening news (Everything Bad Around The World Today). Nor are we talking meditation – we wouldn’t want to suggest something as radical as that, would we, now? No, for a pre-bedtime routine it’s some very gentle yoga, or quiet contemplation with the lights turned off, or lying down with some guided visualizations or gentle relaxation movements.

5% a consistent bedtime with plenty of time (say, 9 hours) before needing to rise again
A bedtime that stays consistent even in the weekends lets the body become accustomed to produce on schedule the chemicals that enhance sleep. And having a leisurely-allocated 9 hours, whether you ultimately use them or not, will virtually guarantee that you will feel well-rested by the time your dawn simulator goes off.

So there it is – one 5% step at a time.

The idea is not to try one or two cherry-picked ones and see how it goes. Rather, the idea is to do all of them daily, allowing for variability in their success. So long as 75, 80 or 85% of them work, they will yield steady improvement in mood and a more balanced of being and of feeling.

And while it may look as though doing these 20 things daily would require a lot of time, many lend themselves to combining – for instance, solitude and a pre-bed-time routine of yoga/relaxation; or being in nature while connecting with friends; or exercising through dancing. Once they become second nature, they require no more time than waking up to the dawn simulator. And, as anyone who’s ever been depressed can tell you, they certainly eat up a lot less time and energy than being depressed.

All right, I think I’ve earned the right to go play minesweeper for at least 2 hours. Ooops. You didn’t hear me say that, did you?



The Healing Power of Honoring our Tears.

Relephant Bonus:


About Ricardo das Neves

Ricardo das Neves is the author of Unenlightened: Confessions of an Irreverent Yoga Teacher, and is occasionally known to tweet (@spirithumor). See more VISUAL YOGA BLOGS here. When he’s not trying to be funny, he acts very serious teaching yoga classes in and around Seattle. Subscribe to future VISUAL YOGA BLOGS here. Connect with him on Google+


35 Responses to “The 5 percent solution for depression.”

  1. Thank you for this. This is a great post. I have PPD and I’m currently struggling with the decision to continue with my current holistic treatments (cbt, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, supplements, and diet, among other things) or to add in western medication.

    Your suggestions are manageable pieces that can be added together to make a real difference. Whatever my decision about medication is, I will be mindfully including some of your suggestions as well.

  2. Debbie says:

    I am willing to believe that this system is real stress buster, most people don't know that stress is related to proper diet as well as the external factors.

  3. jenfnp says:

    As a yoga teacher and a health care provider, I too feel conflicted about a pill vs lifestyle changes. I have seen some amazing results with SSRIs and no effects at all. For those who truly have a long term chemical imbalance, they are not just life enhancing, but life saving. But truly, for most of the rest of the world, your 5% will be the ticket. My biggest issue in practice is how to engage people in their own care. It only works when they are engaged.

    • Ricardo says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, and I couldn't agree more with you. Engagement in self-care is a tricky vicious circle — part of being depressed is having little motivation, period, and part of getting over it is being motivated about the self care… I can only hope that something like yoga eventually touches that wellspring of motivation somewhere in their spiritual core. If you ever do figure out a way to resolve the conundrum, even if it doesn't work all the time, please do let us know. Thanks for writing.

    • Jane Waterman says:

      As someone who's suffered clinical depression for most of 24 years, my perspective is both are critical. The SSRIs sometimes bring me back from the edge of death, but the latter 19 years of that time I was engaged in a search for the answer – explored CBT heavily. It is only the last 4 years, thanks to a remarkable counsellor, I have come to understand the importance of compassion, and each of these 5% – I think it is a remarkable article – revelatory for people who don't have the long history of exploration I've had.

      I suspect I will always battle with depression, but I will always be looking for every 5% that will make my life a little better.

      In terms of engagement, my current doctors (bar one) treat me like an idiot (I dropped out of a PhD in sciences), and in the early days of my illness I experienced so much denial and dismissive behaviour from doctors that I do not trust them and do not open up. In my experience, patients become much more engaged when they are treated as an equal partner in the healing process. As someone who has suffered an undiagnosed autoimmune disease all these years, I can attest that the majority of chronically ill people feel like their doctors are just not listening and give up trying to be engaged. I have actually stopped going to the doctors except for my SSRI prescription.

      I guess the bottom line of my ramble is, if you are looking for engaged patients, look to people who have been ill for years or decades. We really want to be well, and we really want to find someone who will listen to us. My favourite doctor takes an hour with me, explains the science of what is going on, and listens to me.


  4. Great article, Ricardo.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  5. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  6. Corti Cooper says:

    Great post. I have struggled with depression and through yoga and some of the 5%, I am happy, productive and healthy. I believe so much in yoga that I too am now a yoga teacher. The breath, the movement, all of it, works.

    I also take whole food supplements that allows the body to really process the necessary nutrients. VB12, C and Fish Oil are definitely part of my solution. These can definitely be found in food but when I am not feeling well, the last thing I want to do is figure out which kind of lettuce is right for me. Anywho, thanks for this. It's a gem. xxcc

    • Ricardo says:

      Thank you so much for writing and your additional thoughts. I considered alluding to vitamins in the article as well, but didn't want the list to be overwhelming. Or maybe more overwhelming than it is already for someone who might be depressed. I'll keep your suggestions in mind for my general well-being too. Thank you

  7. YesuDas says:

    I love this, Ricardo! During a recent depressed period, I found it rejuvenating just to get my frame drums off the floor and hang them on the wall. Baby steps. As Mother Theresa said, "We cannot do great things–only small things with great love."

    Thomas á Kempis wrote, in "The Imitation of Christ," that when we are unable to devote ourselves "to the spiritual life and divine contemplation," that "it is good to take refuge in humble outward tasks and to refresh yourself with good works." Baby steps; 5% solutions.

    You may have heard the Aesop fable about the boy who reached into a jar and grabbed a huge handful of figs and hazelnuts, only to find he couldn't then withdraw his hand from the jar? I used to tell my composition students that one when I saw them trying to write a whole piece of music all at once. One thing at a time, I'd tell them! Melody first, then bass line, then harmonies, etc. Baby steps. These are some great suggestions you've put forth here!

    • Ricardo says:

      Thank you so much! Your comment about hanging up the drums makes me reflect that I left out the possibility of rearranging one's living space as a significant way to stimulate newness and refresh the stale when one is depressed. Thank you for your thoughts. Baby steps for all of us. 🙂

  8. Rosetta says:

    This is so brilliant. Tweeting immediately!

    • Ricardo says:

      Thanks very much. I'm not sure it's brilliant — just a collection of all the common-sense things most people already know, just assembled for the convenience of referencing it all in one place… 🙂 Thanks for writing.

  9. Chrystos says:

    Excellent article. Who says solid educational material cannot be mixed with wit & entertainment (who says? Probably those sober people who aren't getting enough play time, around-beauty time, dancing time, around nature time, sex, etc!)

    Bravo and Kudos to you, Ricardo! I have someone close to me who has been having a very tough time navigating depression and other mental challenges, and I will definitely forward this to him.

    I'd like to suggest you check out an article I published in Elephant Journal recently. I think you'd like it. It's called "Yoga as a Martial Art– Aikido As Yoga". It's about yoga, aikido, conflict resolution, spirals in nature (& in yoga & aikido), and massage therapy. Here's the link:

    Anyway, thanks <so much> for your fun & enlightening article. I hope it goes viral & helps thousands!

    • Ricardo says:

      Thank you, Chrystos — for reading and for sending me to your article, which I enjoyed very much and commented on. I really like the practical applications of your ideas. Thanks for thoughts and for stopping by.

  10. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  11. Love it. I'm one who needs the meds but incorporating the holistic means I need less of them. Thanks, Ricardo! Cheers 🙂

  12. erin says:

    this post is an excellent, thoughtful, workable solution towards depression-or just taking care of yourself. Not only that, people who don't necessarily suffer from clinical depression can benefit from the 5% solution. It really isn't about one single thing, but a combination. I was one of those people who did actually suffer from clinical depression and social anxiety. It got so bad that I did have to go on meds. Thank god I did, because it didn't necessarily "solve" the underlying issues that contributed towards my affliction, the meds got me out of bed, and evened me out, so I could literally function. Looking back though, I should have had 2-4 year plan to get off the meds; I stayed on them for 8 years and that also didn't do me any good. I just stayed…even (now it feels like I was asleep). But hey, it was all part of my path right? 16 months ago I found yoga and by that time I had withdrawn fully from my meds and literally felt like I was walking around emotionally naked. Yoga, breathing, and a LOT of journaling and processing brought me to where I am today.

    This also reminds me to not poo-poo someone who is on medication. Maybe that's what they need at that time. Medication was right for me 10 years ago. I've changed. Now yoga is right for me in this time in my life.

    • Ricardo says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Erin — it's exactly the sort of thing that I hope others see and read and realize that under the right circumstances, and, as you point out, with the right plan, medication can be very useful where all else fails. And glad to have a testimonial for yoga, breathing, journaling and processing — for those folks who might be on the other side of the spectrum and poo-poo that instead. Thanks for writing. Take good care.

  13. Ricardo says:

    Very interesting. I guess a universal definition of depression would be "low energy" — although the two obviously aren't interchangeable. Low thyroid=low energy=possibility of feeling more depressed. Thanks for your thoughts.

  14. […] that are responsible for different aspects of our lives. The limbic brain is responsible for our emotional world. The neocortical brain is where our logic, reason and understanding takes place. We learn […]

  15. […] that are responsible for different aspects of our lives. The limbic brain is responsible for our emotional world. The neocortical brain is where our logic, reason and understanding takes place. We learn […]

  16. […] get depressed, angry, foolish; needy and wildly independent at the same time. When I found yoga, I was clinically depressed. Yoga got me out of my house, onto my mat, into a therapist’s office and out of a destructive […]

  17. In recent years, the style and peace of life has changed and society looks increasingly less with what we knew years ago. Almost no one is safe with a stable job, people can get fired any time and they worry more than usual. After bad things happen they lose hope and fall into depression. There are ways for treating depression and if you overcome depression, you will have energy and power, you can do things more easily.
    Most people believe the depressed non-pharmacological solutions are difficult to put into practice or ineffective. Great pharmaceutical giants want us to believe that! There will be faced with losing billions of dollars in profits.

  18. Linda Mad Hatter says:

    Wow lol. For all sorts of reasons too complicated to go into here, I thought I would hate this, but instead I loved it. Great job 🙂

  19. Erin says:

    I love the 5% idea. I suffer from depression, social anxiety and some body image/eating issues. As I’ve gotten older, I can see that I’ve suppressed emotions and experiences because they are too painful to experience. In the past, I’ve had the mentality that if something is beneficial, like yoga/running/healthy eating, then I should do it obsessively. I’ve only been practicing yoga for about a year now, but I can see that I managed to use it as a way to abuse myself again. It’s been a very turbulent year filled with moments of so much self-disgust and then heart shaking moments of gratitude and love. Sometimes it feels like I’m battling a demon who knows all my weak spots. This is a reminder that I can battle my depression with many things I already love to do. Now if I could slow my mind down enough to meditate.

  20. Nicole says:

    Thank you so much for acknowledging that severe clinical depression requires a different approach. While all of the other suggestions you make are helpful to me now that I am only moderately depressed, I wouldn't be at the place where I could try them and practice them without the help of my antidepressants. I hope that one day I will no longer need medication, but have accepted that at this time I am someone who needs them to survive.

  21. Karen Monteith says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post Ricardo! Even though many of these ideas are common sense, we need to be reminded to do them sometimes. I loved this collection.

  22. Teri Sullivan says:

    This is a great article. Thanks so much for breaking self care down to manageable steps. That is so practical and empowering In addition to sharing this I’d like to print a copy and give it to clients is that possible?

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