Over the last year, I tried to develop personal protocols to maintain my mental health and make it less sensitive to external events. This post contains a summary of these protocols.

Dec 31, 2019

In the past, my inability to optimize mental health has been a major source of lost productivity. This has included loss of motivation to do work, an inability to concentrate on the task at hand, and sub-optimal reactions to external stimuli (like responding with anger to angry clients, colleagues, or friends).

At the beginning of 2019, I tried to develop protocols to improve my subjective mental health. It's difficult to know if they worked – because mental health is so difficult to quantify. But I have feltmore productive, less emotionally reactive, and generally happier this year.

I am an engineer – not a doctor or psychiatrist. So do take these with a pinch of salt. The first 4 protocols are backed by psychiatric studies, while the last two have no objective basis.

1. Get sufficient and regular sleep

The NHS conducted a meta-analysis of 49 trials, and found that the mean difference for depression ratings after treatment of sleep problems was 0.45 (95% CI: 0.36,0.55). In other words, on a scale used to quantify depression by psychiatrists, those who received treatment for sleep problems performed had their "depression scores" lowered by 0.45 standard deviations.

This effect was even more pronounced in those with mental health problems, leading to a mean difference of 0.81 standard deviatons (95% CI: 0.48,1.13). The review concluded that:

... non-pharmacological sleep interventions are effective in reducing the severity of depression, particularly in clinical populations. This suggests that non-pharmacological sleep interventions could be offered as a treatment for depression, potentially improving access to treatment.

This is very much in line with my personal experience. After trying to regularize my sleep cycle and improve sleep quality, I have seen subjective improvements in mental health. Specifically, I feel less irritable, less emotionally reactive, and have a significantly lower incidence of "unhappy" days.

Protip if you want to improve sleep – don't have coffee or alcohol after 4PM, and reduce exposure to LED light from phones or computers atleast 30 minutes before going to bed.

My sleep pattern (measured by FitBit) on a good night

My sleep pattern (measured by FitBit) on a good night

2. Getting regular aerobic exercise, and spending more time in nature

According to a meta-analysis of 25 randomized control trials of exercise as a treatment for depression, exercise led to a standardized mean difference of 1.11 (95% CI 0.79-1.43) standard deviations in ratings on depressive symptoms, adjusted for publication bias.

Among people who had major depressive disorder, large effects were found with moderate intensity aerobic exercise (like running/jogging), as well as trainings given by exercise professionals.

This is also in line with my personal experience. I have felt happier and less emotionally reactive when I'm running regularly. When I have stayed off running for an elongated period, I've felt a noticeable difference in general happiness.

I've also found running in nature to be enormously cathartic. Singapore has some amazing trails that let you run underneath tree canopies and next to water bodies. Going for a long jog in these – often with an audiobook – is enormously invigorating.