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Most camp food is terrible or the opposite of Primal. Or both.
It’s either an expensive REI tetrapak full of wheat flour, dehydrated “meat,” and desiccated Crisco, a Dough Boy, or the entirely overrated s’more. I’ll get flak for that last one, but I don’t care. S’mores rarely live up to the hype past age 12.
Just because you’re living out of a tent doesn’t mean you have to settle for terrible, unhealthy, unappetizing food. If anything, you should be eating healthier when you camp. It feels corrosive to defile the sanctity and purity of the wild with processed junk food wrapped in plastic. You generate all this trash. Whole, Primal foods taste even better when you camp; packaged garbage somehow tastes even worse.
I’ll cover backpacking food in a future post, but car camping cookery is my specialty. That’s what I’ll cover today—the kind of weekend trip that allows for a sizable cooler, some extras flourishes, and more than a single cooking pot. There’s nothing better than turning your campsite into a full-fledged camp kitchen, creating hearty meals whose scents permeate the grounds, arousing jealousy and any nearby wandering bears. There’s something about serving up dark chocolate chili and a nice Malbec while the family next to you nibbles PopTarts, heats up the $12 freeze-dried dinner from REI, and plays their 20th game of “War.”
What are my go-to car camping favorites?
Sometimes I’ll just do the basics: eggs, bacon, a piece of meat or fish, some grilled asparagus.
More often, I’ll turn to my favorites….
The Hobo Pack
The hobo pack harkens back to those ancient days when hobos, tramps, and vagabonds of all sorts would travel the dusty roads and endless railroads of classic America carrying heavy duty aluminum foil pouches of meat, taters, and vegetables.
The hobo pack is versatile and forgiving. Anything works, and almost anything will end up tasting damn good. Create a pouch with two layers of aluminum foil. Fill the pouch with meat and vegetables. Place pouch on coals.
Pot Roast—beef, onion, carrot, garlic, salt, pepper, a little red wine.
Salmon—salmon, lemon, broccoli, butternut squash, salt, avocado oil.
Whatever you do, pair your meats and vegetables well. Fish cooks quickly, so you’ll want to include vegetables that cook quickly, too. Beef chuck takes longer, so you’ll want something heartier, like sweet potatoes.
Buried Winter Squash
My absolute favorite winter squash is the honeynut squash. It looks like a butternut squash, only about 1/3 the size and a deep orange. The taste is phenomenal.
Get a nice bed of coals going. Bury your squash in the coals and hot ash. Cover it on all sides.
When they’re soft and tender all over, pull them out. Brush off most of the soot and slice lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds.
They’re good plain, with a little butter, or even a scoop of chevre (soft goat cheese) and salt.
First, make the harissa from this recipe. Set aside.
Heat up a dutch oven over the fire. Add olive oil, a few chopped garlic cloves, one chopped hot pepper, one chopped sweet pepper, and a tablespoon of ground cumin. Sub cayenne and sweet paprika if you don’t have fresh peppers. Cook until fragrant.
Add the harissa along with a can of crushed tomatoes (or the equivalent in fresh tomatoes, if you have access) and two teaspoons of tomato paste.
Reduce until thickened, salting to taste. When it tastes just right, make a few indentations in the sauce and crack an egg in each. I aim for at least 6 or 7 eggs.
Cover and cook until eggs are cooked to your desired doneness. I like the yolks runny. Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt, creme fraiche, sour cream, or labneh.
Pancakes with Camp Preserves
For the pancakes, I’ll either do these almond pancakes or these blueberry pancakes. One time, I even mixed some masa harina (lime-treated corn flour, the same stuff used in traditional tortillas) with an egg and a little coconut milk; turned out great. Any Primal pancake recipe you like will work.
For the camp preserves, just chop up whatever fruit you have. I’ve done mangoes, bananas, pears, and strawberries. I’ve done apples and pineapple with cinnamon. I’ve done blueberries, raspberries, blackberries. Every combination I’ve ever tried has worked. I just heat up a pan over the fire, add a little butter (seriously, not much), and throw in the chopped up fruit. Cook until soft, add a little water, mash, and reduce until you have thick camp preserves. Spoon over the pancakes.
Every time I camp, I make a pot of this chili. I won’t expand on the recipe; you can just read the link. But there are a few ways to streamline the process.
Chop all the peppers and onions and garlic before hand.
Mix all the spices together so you can just keep them in one container and add them in one fell swoop.
Oh, and in the last 10-15 minutes of cooking, drop in a bar of 85% or higher dark chocolate. The one that seems to work the best for me is Valrhona Le Noir 85%. If you can’t find it, any high-cacao content bar will work.
You can also transform the entire character of the dish by adding a tablespoon of cardamom pods with the other spices. That alone makes it almost curry-like. If you go this route, you can also get away with doing lamb instead of beef. Just be sure to strain out the cardamom pods before serving.
Lemon Onion Wings
The day before your trip, blend one large or two medium onions with the juice from 5 lemons and a couple tablespoons of fish sauce in a well-sealed baggy or tupperware container. This is your marinade.
The morning of, place 4-5 pounds of chicken wings in a reliable Ziploc bag and pour the marinade over. You’ll want this to marinate for at least a day, so having this for dinner that night works perfectly.
When you’re ready to cook, place a grill over the campfire. Lay out the wings on paper towels and wipe off most of the marinade. Some bits of lemony onion will remain. That’s fine.
Salt and pepper the wings all over. Place on grill.
Assuming you’ve allowed enough time for the marinade to penetrate, grilling these wings over open flame/hot coals caramelizes the onion-imbued skin. Turn frequently. You want char, but not burning. When you suspect they’re ready, remove the largest wing and cut it open. If it’s done and no pink remains, take the rest off.
Primal Chocolate Cake
Take a Japanese sweet potato—the ones with the purple skin and white flesh. Bury it in some coals and hot ash. If you like the charred flavor and prefer extra caramelization, throw it directly into the coals. If you like a more steamed tuber and wish to avoid charring, wrap it in foil.
Remove from coals after 30 minutes and give it a squeeze. If it’s soft, it’s done. If there are any hard spots, throw it back in for another 5-10 minutes.
Once it’s done, split it down the middle. Insert several squares of good dark chocolate. Sprinkle sea salt. Mash, eat. Primal chocolate cake.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of car camping food, but it’s a solid list of dishes I’ve found to be both doable/realistic and delicious. You’ll notice that the carb counts for many of these dishes are a bit higher than usual. That’s because when I camp, I’m usually very active—hiking, swimming, exploring, playing. You should be, too.
Now I’d love to hear from all the campers out there. What are your favorite Primal foods to cook in the great outdoors?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!
The post Primal Camping Meals: Weekend “Car Camping” Edition appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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We’re in the last few days of the 21-Day Challenge now…. Successes so far? Stumbling blocks along the way? Lingering ideas/questions coming to the fore? I’ll be announcing winners to the contests throughout the rest of this week, and tomorrow you’ll all be voting on the best Grok Pose of 2018.
But for today, we’re kicking back and focusing just on R&R. A few of the staff volunteered to share their favorite ways to recharge. The Primal Blueprint isn’t a diet after all. It’s a full lifestyle—a path to living awesome, and rest and relaxation are critical parts of that endeavor. Grok excelled in this area in fact. How are your relaxation routines working for you these days? Hope you find some inspiration this morning, everyone. Wishing you well.
“I love doing yoga – taking time to move my body and breathe deeply. It’s amazing how quickly I can relax and refocus after spending even 10 minutes on the mat. I think it’s super important to stretch and get to you know how your body moves. Yoga has helped me a ton as an athlete, and I really think it’s made me a more balanced human overall.” – Annie M.
“I love this little remote spot by one of the lakes in Pheonix, AZ. It’s so peaceful during the early springtime when the snow has partially melted. The air is crisp and clean, the foliage is new and green. A great place to chill and relax.” – Michelle F.
“Seeing Buddhist sculpture/art is an instant reminder for me to breathe, be calm, stay mindful and aware of the moment. The combination of the Buddha with the flowing water puts me in a more tranquil mood.” – Sabrina T.
“I have so many relaxation routines, I didn’t know which one to choose! This pair of intertwined spruce trees are what I call The Turnaround Trees. From my front door to these trees is two miles; if I “turn around” here, I can log a 4-mile meditative country walk to my day. I don’t need any special shoes, wearables, or gadgets to get this done. I’m not trying to crush a PR. It doesn’t have to show up on Instagram… I just go as I am — barefoot, sometimes; sometimes carrying my evening glass of wine. If I time it just right, I can catch the sun setting over the Rocky Mountain foothills. Normally my phone isn’t allowed to come on this walk with me – a non-negotiable element of all of my relaxation rituals! – but I made an exception just this once, so the MDA crowd can see that a meditation practice can be as simply unstructured as this.” – Erin P.
“Relaxation for me happens outdoors. I do my deepest meditation outside, and I feel the most recharged after a morning on the trails or (more to the rest theme) under the trees. I got to spend a few hours in this hammock a couple of weeks ago, and even the image itself helps re-ignite the relaxation response.” – Jen W.
Thanks for stopping by today, everybody, and I hope you’ll share what you do to kick back and de-stress. And if any of the images or ideas got some thoughts going for you, let the bees and I know.
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Even after I fixed my diet, ditched the chronic cardio, and cleaned up my overall lifestyle to be more in line with our evolutionary upbringing, one big problem remained: my response to stress.
This had always been an issue for me. Part of it was that I kept a full plate at all times. Whether it was my training load, my businesses, my overall type A personality, stress was simply unavoidable, I thought.
How did I approach the situation and manage my stress differently over time?
First, I agonized over the existence of stress. My entire modus operandi throughout life had been to handle problems when they arose. I didn’t let things fester, I didn’t accept bad situations and learn to deal. I took care of things. If a problem didn’t resolve quickly , I assumed I was doing something wrong. Applied to stress, though? Man, what a disaster. I quickly realized that it was impossible to avoid stress, or eliminate it altogether. I needed a new approach.
So the first major step was admitting that stress is a fact of life, that stressors would arise, and what mattered was how I responded to them. My response could make the stress worse, or it could make it more manageable.
The first way I figured out how to improve my stress response was with smart supplementation. When I was still competing and doing the chronic cardio training required to succeed, I developed a supplement you might recognize by its old Primal Calm label and now called Adaptogenic Calm—designed to mitigate the negative effects of all that training stress. Both Brad Kearns and I used it, and it actually became an underground hit in the endurance scene. Athletes of all kinds were taking it and seeing great results. Of course, most of us just used it to allow our bodies to train even more and accumulate even more stress, which was one of the problems that got me into this mess in the first place.
The next step was realizing that even if I couldn’t eliminate stress entirely, I could eliminate unnecessary stress. First on the list was my training. You’ve heard the story before, so I won’t get too deeply into it. Suffice it to say, I was engaged in way too much endurance training—what I call chronic cardio—and spending way too much time out of the aerobic zone in the no-man’s land of moderately high-intensity that leads to sugar-burning and depresses fat-burning. This training was killing me, taking up all my time, necessitating an inflammatory high-carb, high-sugar diet that led to chronic GI distress and joint pain, and getting in the way of living. If any of you can identify a big stressor upstream of a bunch of things going wrong in your life, take action and eliminate it. Changing how I trained led to the development of the Primal Blueprint and the resolution of most of my health problems.
Meditation always intrigued me. Even before it became an Internet sensation and every podcaster/blogger/CEO/coach out there credited their success to their morning meditation routine, I was surrounded by meditators. My wife, Carrie, has done it for decades. Lots of my athlete friends used it to—you guessed it—fight stress. And Malibu, CA, where I lived until a few months ago, is no stranger to yoga studios, health food stores, and other similar hives of mindfulness. I tried it. But it didn’t work for me. My mind was too active to become aware of its (lack of) self. Still, the science was convincing and I didn’t want to give up on what looked to be a potent anti-stress tool:
- Lengthening of telomeres.
- Upregulation of genes responsible for energy metabolism, longevity, mitochondrial function, inflammation, and insulin secretion.
- Blood pressure normalization.
- Stress reduction.
- Greater resistance to stress.
- Improved cognitive function by reshaping the actual brain.
- Promoting neuroplasticity.
- Anxiety reduction.
- Immune system improvements.
If sitting meditation didn’t work, maybe there was another way to get to a similar mindstate.
In a post I wrote about meditation alternatives, I gave 15 options and readers followed up with dozens of awesome suggestions in the comments. Standup paddling, hikes (or just hanging out) in nature, and guided meditations were my alternatives. They help me achieve the hyper-present flow state I’d only had glimpses of during “real” meditation. And sure enough, stress melts away as I’m doing the activity, I’m far less reactive to stressors (I have an extra split second or two to decide how I want to respond) throughout the week, and I appear to have greater resistance to stress. It’s almost an adaptogenic effect: rather than blunt or eliminate the stress response across the board, I’m able to call forth cortisol when the situation is serious. A car honking at me doesn’t trigger it, in other words.
Where am I today?
Stress is still there. It won’t ever go away, and I’m okay with that. I’ve got a growing food and supplement business, I’m as busy as ever with the writing, I just moved to Miami.
Meditation has gotten easier, but I’m still not a “meditation guy.” I don’t expect to be doing a 10-day silent retreat anytime soon.
Adaptogenic Calm remains a staple for me. The nutrients it contains are supraphysiological responses to the supraphysiological doses and durations of stress we receive in the modern world.
I welcome stress. If I align myself with the things I truly find meaningful and maintain active participation in life and avoid becoming a passive character in someone else’s storyline, the stressors become obstacles that make the narrative of my life more interesting. They propel me forward. Without stressors, I’m not living. I’m not doing anything. Stressors indicate action. They mean you’re bouncing up against reality and testing its mettle (and it, yours).
What’s your stress response journey? I’d love to hear how you’ve handled stress in the past, what you’ve learned along the way, and how you handle it now. Thanks, everybody.
I’ve got a contest coming up later this morning, so be sure to check back.
The post How My Response to Stress Has Changed Through the Years appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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On June 23rd, the world changes. Every RV, Subaru Outback, and pickup truck in every neighborhood across the country disappears from city limits. Expect the swoosh of fiberglass poles sliding through tent fabric to resound across the land and millions of campfires to produce enough smoke to block out the sun. Molted marshmallow flows will destroy hundreds of homes, and millions of fathers sitting on Doug fir rounds by the fire will tell so many ghost stories that they summon actual phantoms from the spirit world. The nation’s circadian rhythms will get a hard reset back to the superior factory settings, thanks to avoidance of artificial light after dark. Or so we could hope….
June 23rd is the Great American Campout, that time of the year when the National Wildlife Federation arranges a series of mass public camping sessions across the country and encourages everyone else to do the same in their local communities. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone.
The unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of people still don’t camp. Chances are, the average person won’t even be aware that the Great American Campout is happening. This is a tragedy.
Regular camping could change the world. Imagine if every citizen spent at least a couple nights per month under the stars, gazing into a dancing campfire, getting fresh air and plenty of natural sunlight during the day, going on hikes, lounging in hammocks with a book, and ignoring their smartphone (because there’s no reception). The world would be a better place. People would be happier, healthier, and more tuned in to everyone’s ancestral homeland: the wilderness.
You might think it’s cheesy, or lament the imagined crowds, but you’d be making a mistake. Getting more people to enjoy and experience the outdoors will ensure we hold onto them for years to come.
There are many ways to take part:
- Host a public campout. Arrange your own public campout in your community.
- Attend a public campout. Go join in on the fun.
- Just go camping. Participating in the Campout doesn’t have to be formal or registered. You can just camp in solidarity with everyone else.
If you’re new to camping, want to level your camping up, or are just interested in why camping is so important for our health, take a look at the posts I below.
- Here are the main benefits of camping.
- Here are tips for mastering the wilderness.
- Here is where I explain why artificial blue light after dark is so bad for our sleep and circadian rhythm. A big reason to go camping on a regular basis is that it removes the worst source of nighttime artificial light, like electronic devices and street lamps.
- Here is where I explain how to access and foster your wild side.
- Here’s how to grill.
- Here’s how to take better hikes.
- Here are some ideas for good Primal non-perishables.
Go to the website, make the pledge, and start getting friends and family together for an awesome time together. There’s no way you’ll regret camping. Even the rough situations, like storms in the middle of the night, make for great stories—but you almost certainly will regret letting the opportunity slip through your fingers. Chances are, camping is one of those things you “resolve” to do more of but never actually do. Now’s your chance. Consider it a mini-challenge within your 21-Day framework.
Want some inspiration for camping and other active vacations? Some of our Worker Bees are sharing their favorite trips today. And be sure to leave your own anecdotes/suggestions for camping and active vacations in the comments for today’s contest (details below).
My favorite type of vacation is a good balance between relaxation and activity. I love getting up in the morning for a hike or taking a walk on the beach at sunset. Then, finding time to read, recharge and connect with the natural beauty of my surroundings is where it’s at! Also, water is a must! I feel the most relaxed near the lake or an ocean. This photo is a Rocky Mountains camping trip. – Ana G.
Destination races! My husband and I sign up for races as an excuse to visit other countries, like when we ran the Great Wall of China Marathon. It’s pretty much the opposite of sitting poolside with a mai tai! You get to meet amazing people—other participants, race volunteers, and locals—you’d never normally encounter and see things the average tourist misses. It’s a wonderful way to travel. – Lindsay T.
My favorite active spot around the globe to vacation is Costa Rica! I especially love Dominical, a little surf town on the Pacific Coast. Great for yoga, kayaking, surfing, hiking, running, and swimming, there are literally endless adventures to be had in a place so rich in different ecosystems and outdoors escapes. – Annie M.
Morning run in Tel Aviv, Israel! – Chloe M.
One of my most memorable places for vacation was Lake Tahoe, absolutely gorgeous scenery and amazing time spent with family. We paddle boarded, canoed, and fished! – Michelle F.
I spend a lot of time in the North Woods and North Shore (Minnesota). It’s beautiful hiking there, and we enjoy gorgeous sunsets on the rocky beaches. – Jen W.
I’m lucky to live just a few hours away from Big Bear, California, and it’s definitely a favorite getaway spot. With breathtaking views, epic hiking trails and calm water, there’s no shortage of activities to keep you moving!
Last time I was there, I linked up with the Bee the Wellness tribe for one of their adventure retreats. It’s so nice to just show up somewhere with all your activities and (paleo!) meals planned, so you can sit back and really enjoy your surroundings. In fact, I’ll be joining them again this July in the Redwoods! If you miss PrimalCon, you’ll LOVE this (and you might see a few familiar faces too). – Liz M.
Favorite active vacation spot: San Diego, CA
1. Hiking in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (attached photo taken on one of the trails that overlooks the beach)
2. SUP/paddleboarding in Mission Bay
3. Family bike riding on Coronado Island
4. Kayaking and jetskiing in Carlsbad Lagoon
5. Trail running and hiking in the San Elijo Hills
– Sabrina T.
Now For the Contest…
The Bees and I want to hear your stories and suggestions for camping adventures and active vacations. Simply leave a relevant comment here by the deadline, and you’ll be entered to win.
The Platinum Package is the ultimate in supplementation, and a daily dietary boost favored by Mark Sisson, his wife and thousands of other health-conscious devotees. This comprehensive supplement plan includes: Primal Master Formula, Primal Fuel, Primal Probiotics, Primal Omegas and Primal Sun. With a 30-day supply of a high-antioxidant multivitamin complex, omega-3 fish oils, healthy probiotics, vitamin D and a 21-day supply of delicious, coconut-based Primal meal replacement shake, the Platinum Package is a complete, convenient and cost-effective way to live a healthy, Primal life in the modern world.*
The Deadline: Midnight PDT, June 19th, 2018
Thanks for stopping in, everyone. Take care.
The post Great American Campout, Worker Bee Trips, and a Contest! appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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We’re almost halfway through 2018. History is accelerating. New advances, technology, scientific findings, and social changes are occurring faster than ever before. There’s never any time like the present, but these days it feels like the present is slipping away at an exponential rate. This is no time to be resting on your laurels, biding your time, or waiting to see what happens. It’s time to act. It’s time to make the changes you’ve been mulling over, the ones you know in your heart are the right moves to make.
To help you on your way, I’ve put together a 30-day action plan for the month of June. No one has to follow this to the letter, or even at all, but use it as a template or inspiration. Wake up on June 12 swelling with energy and unsure how to direct it? Check out the action plan. Feeling a bit lazy on June 19? See what the action plan recommends; it may resonate.
Let’s get right to it:
June 1st: Plan your month. Set a goal or two, aiming as high as you realistically can attain.
June 2nd: Track what you eat, how much you move, how long you sit or stand, what you do in the gym, how much you procrastinate or waste time, how much time you spend in flow or being productive. Get specific, get precise—it’s just one day, and you can handle it. Get a good baseline, so you know what you’re working with. Then try to improve on it every day forward.
June 3rd: Try the fitness or movement pursuit you’ve been thinking about for a long time. That thing you know you should be doing, like foam rolling at night or doing a light mobility session in the morning, but keep putting off. Just do it. Feels good, right?
June 4th: Take a cold shower.
June 6th: Reflect on your approach to competition. Who are you competing against? Who should you be competing against? Consider that it might be a better idea to compete against your former self, because besting your former self is a reliable path to self-improvement.
June 7th: Take three walks. One in the morning, one at lunchtime, and one after dinner.
June 8th: Meditate, if you’ve never tried it before. If you have and it doesn’t work for you, try an alternative method for reaching a similar headspace. My favorite way as of late is just sitting quietly at the beach, watching the waves go in and out across the horizon.
June 10th: Don’t just go to the farmer’s market. Make friends with your favorite farmer’s market vendors.
June 11th: Pickle something. It’s really easier than you think to make your own fermented food. Mix 50 grams salt with a liter of quality water, pour over garlic/hot peppers/shallots/pretty much anything you can stuff in a jar until submerged, place something on top to keep everything submerged (a roof of carrots wedged against the sides of the jar works well), lightly cover, and wait for the bubbles to start. When you like the taste, you’re done and can refrigerate the jar.
June 12th: Plan a camping trip for later during the month. Get your family and/or friends together, throw your gear in the car, and make a weekend of it somewhere nice and secluded. Leave electronics behind if you can, or at least limit artificial light after dark (red LED on the headlamp is a must when camping).
June 13th: Wake up and write down ten ideas. About anything at all. They don’t even have to be good. They just have to be on paper.
June 14th: Go for a PR in something. Pick a physical activity, and try to beat your personal best.
June 15th: Fast (if your personal context permits). Men, aim for the full 24 hours. Women, shorter will probably work better—somewhere in the realm of 12-16 hours (less if you’ve never tried).
June 16th: Grill something over open flame. At least one animal and one plant.
June 18th: Try a new recipe. Or just cook something new freestyle, using no recipe at all.
June 20th: Read for two hours. Books, not blogs or social media feeds (present blog excluded).
June 21st: Try to assemble the least expensive, most nutritious day of meals you can.
June 22nd: Have a glass of good wine with someone close to you. Friend, spouse, child (if of age).
June 23rd: Meal prep for the week ahead. Take an hour and get all the basics you need for the rest of the week ready to go. Roast veggies, start something in the Instant Pot, boil some eggs, prep Big Ass Salad makings. What you can cook ahead of time, cook ahead of time.
June 24th: Climb a tree. Be safe, just not too safe. Try to get the blood pumping.
June 25th: If you have any nagging health concerns you’ve been worrying about, make an appointment with a medical professional to get them checked out. Eating, exercising, and living well can transform our health, but we’re not invincible.
June 26th: Dance. Preferably with someone watched (and joining).
June 27th: Dream big. What’s your biggest, most ultimate dream that still has a chance of happening? Write it down, and figure out what you have to do to make it a reality.
June 28th: Forage for something in your yard, neighborhood, local park, or forest. Edible plants are everywhere.
June 29th: Grill some fruit in cast iron over open flame. The best fruit of the year is in season—peaches, cherries, nectarines, berries of all kinds—and yet most people don’t know that you can grill them over open flame and improve the flavor. Top with unsweetened whipped cream (you don’t need the sugar).
June 30th: Show gratitude for the awesome month you just experienced.
I’ll also have more on June’s staff-led 21-Day Challenge next week, so stay tuned. Have a great end to the week, everybody. Thanks for stopping by.
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I can’t complain about my existence in modern culture. My life is great. I have a loving family. My kids are happy and successful. My wife is a friend and lover and confidante and partner. Business is good and interesting. I care about what I’m doing. Every day is meaningful—and unburdened by concerns around mental well-being. Depression isn’t an issue for me.
But it’s not the case for everyone. The numbers don’t lie. Depression rates are climbing. Antidepressants are among the most common drug prescriptions, even among children. And because it can be embarrassing to admit you’re depressed—like there’s “something wrong” with you if you say as much—many people with depression never seek help, so the real numbers could be even higher. Depression isn’t new of course. The ancients knew it as “melancholia,” or possession by malevolent spirits. But all evidence suggests that depression is more prevalent than ever before.
What’s going on?
First of all, the way we speak about depression makes getting to the root of the issue harder.
“It’s all brain chemicals.”
“You have a neurotransmitter imbalance. There’s nothing you can do but take this pill.”
“You were born with it.”
This is an admirable attempt to de-stigmatize depression, turning it into a medical condition that “just happens” and “isn’t your fault.” Some people get brain tumors, some have type 1 diabetes, some have depression. There’s no shame in getting treatment for legitimate medical condition. This is an important development, but there’s a cost: It removes agency. If depression is just something you get or have from the outset, many (certainly not all) people believe there’s no reason to investigate the root cause or pursue alternative solutions.
While there’s definitely a genetic component to depression, and neurotransmitters play key roles, most depression requires some precipitating series of environmental inputs. The vast majority of babies with “depressive genes” don’t come out of the womb listless and morose with “bad brain chemicals.” They may be more or less susceptible to the environmental factors that can trigger depression later in life, but they still require those factors.
What’s happening? Clearly, something novel is afoot. Although we don’t have data on the mental health of paleolithic hunter-gatherers, extant hunter-gatherers exhibit an almost complete lack of depression.
What might help fill in one neglected dimension is to examine what’s unique about modern society.
It Is Atomized
People exist in their own bubbles. We sit in cars, in cubicles, in houses, in separate rooms. Even friends out to lunch are often seen gazing into their smartphones, half-ignorant of the normal waking reality occurring around them. Families gather in the living room not to play board games and chat about the day, but to access their personal portals into cyberspace. Together but apart. It may feel like we’re connecting, but we’re really just lonely. Like something out of a post-Sergeant Peppers Beatles dystopian concept album, the UK even just established a Ministry of Loneliness.
Loneliness has stronger associations with depression than any other social isolation indicator.
Lack Of Tribe
Robin Dunbar came up with Dunbar’s Number after studying disparate tribes and communities across the world: The maximum number of fulfilling, meaningful social relationships a person can reasonably maintain is about 150. We’re geared to desire social acceptance from our tribe, because social acceptance in a tribe of 150 people is both feasible and desirable. It increases survival. If “desire for social acceptance” is mediated by genes to at least some extent, it undergone positive selection; it was helpful and beneficial and supported species survival. Consider what the tribe originally meant: these are the people you grew up with, the people who will have your back. It’s important that your tribe accept you, and that you accept them. Things work better that way.
Today, our tribes are enormous and unwieldy. There’s the city. The state. The nation. The globe. Twitter. Our social media feeds. We can’t know everyone in our city, state, or Twitter feed, yet we get feedback from them. We see the best parts of their lives—what they show to the world—and compare them to the lowest parts of ours—what we hide from world but cannot escape internally. And then ironically, many of us feel estranged from or ignore the people who could actually comprise our true tribes—family, friends, loved ones, neighbors—even when they’re in the same room in favor of the larger, faker tribe. Yet the desire for social acceptance from this sprawling “tribe” persists. And it’s impossible to achieve for most people. Letting your tribe down hurts. We have tribes. They’re just not real or realistic.
It’s Devoid Of Higher Meaning
The roles of religion and other binding schools of philosophy and morality in society are waning. Most people can’t lean on the church or patriotism to find meaning or direction anymore. They must create their own, or discover it. That isn’t easy. It’s far simpler to ignore the void within, flip through your Netflix feed, and obsess about the latest superhero movie than it is to find your purpose.
Having a sense of life meaning is inversely associated with depression.
Life Is Easier
Most people (most reading this, anyway) aren’t walking three miles each way just for moderately fresh water that they still have to dose with iodine tabs or risk parasitic infection, slaving away their entire lives just to produce enough calories for their feudal lord and family, building their own homes out whatever they can manage and fixing whatever breaks (or not). They just turn the tap, order food from Thrive Market, call the plumber.
Work Is Increasingly “Information Work”
Rather than manipulate material objects in the world, we’re manipulating data, filling spreadsheets, fiddling with abstract numbers. Information work is no less real, but it doesn’t feel like that to our psyches.
Life Isn’t As Tragic
There are fewer “classic tragedies.” Fewer people lose loved ones to warfare, babies to disease. While we still have plenty of wars going on, they aren’t logging death counts like the World Wars or Genghis Khan’s conquests. Major civilian centers aren’t being leveled regularly by bombing raids. This is a positive development, but there’s a catch: Research shows that real life disasters strengthen bonds between friends, the neighbors, and the community. If we aren’t facing difficulties, we may not be living to our fullest potential.
Powerful Technology Is Widely Available Almost Everywhere
You can follow Maasai herders on Twitter. You can engage in live video chat with anyone in the world. No need to visit Grandma in Del Boca Vista; you can Facetime her!
Material Problems Are Disappearing
Most people get enough to eat, can get from here to there, can access the Internet, and get medical care if required. You have to try really hard in a modern Western society to die in the street. Even worldwide, poverty is falling. In 1981, nearly half the world’s population was “extremely poor.” As of 2016, it was under 10%. All that’s left are psychological problems.
Why am I here?
What’s the purpose of life?
Why should I continue working this job I don’t really like just to support the same boring routine?
This kind of rumination is a major factor in depression.
In Tribe, Sebastian Junger shows how veterans returning from war—on paper, a hellish experience no one would ever miss—feel suddenly lonely, lost, and often depressed back home. War compresses human experience and intensifies human bonding like nothing else. When these men and women leave war, they’re leaving the strongest, most cohesive tribe they’ve ever known. They’re leaving people who’d die for them and for whom they’d die. What, are they supposed to stand in line at Starbucks, staring at their phones like everyone else and think everything is just fine?
Why are potential root societal causes ignored?
For one, they’re huge problems. A pill is way easier than restructuring the fabric of modern society. If you did that, you’d have to get it right the first time. You can’t exactly run an RCT on social upheaval.
Two, we assume a shared environment. Most of the people you see walking around eat the same basic diet, do the same basic exercises (or don’t), and deal with the same societal pressures and conditions. If you look at things wrong, it seems immutable and unavoidable. Even if they’re aware on some level that modern living is involved in the etiology of depression, most clinicians are assuming, based on prior experience with patients and their own misconceptions about what’s possible and what’s not, that we just have to accept it and apply the best band-aids we have. But if you’ve approached diet and exercise from an evolutionary angle and had incredible results where nothing else had ever worked—you know that common is not normal. You know that the environmental inputs shared by so many in the industrialized world might be persistent and tempting and hard to avoid, but they are avoidable. You can change your surroundings, your inputs, even your mindset.
Three, it isn’t clear what the solutions even are. The world is better today in many ways. Just because many veterans find their tribe in war and suffer upon returning, it doesn’t follow that we should go to war more often for our mental health.
We can’t rely on technocratic overlords to engineer the perfect utopia. Those always end in dystopias—more Brave New World than 1984. No, any change has to start within each individual, at dinner tables, in friend circles, in one person—you—deciding to do things differently.
I won’t get much into diet or exercise or sunlight or sleep today. Those are major parts of the equation, but I prefer to focus on how the structure of our society impacts depression and how we can transcend it.
These are some ideas. They’re not perfect. They’re not the whole story. And they’re not meant to replace medication or therapy or anything like that. But they won’t hurt….
Listen to the “first voice.” Every time you get that little voice saying “I should finally pick up that book” or “I should walk the dog” or “I wonder what my friends are up to,” DO IT. Don’t let the other voice override you and say “Nah, let’s just stay inside today.” That second voice is destroying you. Do everything you can to ignore it.
In low moments, rather than try to cheer yourself up, be of service to someone. A concerted effort to cheer oneself up often produces the opposite effect. We’re not great at doing it for ourselves, perhaps because at some level we sense it’s all a sham, a ploy to shift around neurotransmitters. But when you help someone else, you’re truly helping them. They feel good, you feel good, and everyone wins.
Chase meaning, not happiness. “Being happy” is hard work. You can’t get there by trying. Figure out what you care about at the deepest level of your being. What stirs you. What, most importantly, you can actually affect with your skillset. If you can manage to imbue every fiber of your being with that purpose, you’ll get going after it. You’ll have something to do, and maybe you’ll have less time for rumination and other things that make your depression worse.
Easier said than done, you might say. Definitely. I haven’t been there myself, but I’ve helped people close to me who have. Clinical depression isn’t just sadness. It’s profoundly demotivating, where taking even the smallest act like getting dressed can be a struggle. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in movement and achievement and motivation, tends to plummet in major depression.
Still, what else is there? You are an individual, not an atom. An atom is separate but unconscious. It has no agency. It simply is. An individual is separate from other individuals but conscious. It has agency. It can form communities, strong bonds. Revel in your personal sovereignty but don’t forget that you’re a social animal who will probably be much happier with a few good friends (who aren’t all wielding smartphones 24-7).
There are other specific things to try. Trawl the scientific literature and you’ll find hundreds of studies showing efficacy for any number of medication-free depression therapies and interventions. None of them are the final answer, though, as much as they can help. Ballroom dancing isn’t going to fix things. Gardening isn’t enough. Heavy squats won’t do it. Plunging into cold water isn’t everything.
It has to be a comprehensive shift.
The common theme running through most of these “alternative” interventions is that it places you square in the midst of cold hard reality. You’re on your knees, handling soil and planting vegetables. You’re dancing, immersed in the music and managing the dynamic interplay between you and your partner. You’re lifting something very heavy. You’re completely submerged in freezing water. These are real. They cannot be escaped or negotiated with. They aren’t running on perpetual loops inside your head. They’re actually happening.
Get as much of that in your life.
In the future, I’ll discuss this topic further. I’ll talk about dietary, exercise, lifestyle, supplement, and psychological modifications we can make.
For now, I’d love to hear from you. Those who’ve dealt with or who currently deal with depression, what’s helped? What hasn’t? What’s your take on the list of social factors that may explain the rise in depression—or the severity of symptoms as you experience them? What do you think we can do—as individuals and as a society—to make things better?
Thanks for reading. Take care.
The post The Roots of Depression: How Much Does Modern Culture Have to Do With It? appeared first on Mark’s Daily Apple.
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