What is Depression?
Depression slows down the mind and body. Sometimes to a complete halt, sometimes keeping life in slow motion. Moving through it can feel like fighting through a thick fog or pool of mud.
Depression is a force.
When someone is in a depressive state, they experience low energy, fatigue, insomnia, oversleeping, lack of joy, increased or decreased appetite. There is a pervasive sense of sadness, purposelessness or hopelessness.
Thoughts are relentlessly negative, and depression seems to keep any positive moment or thought undetectable to the mind on the other side of its gloomy veil. Those experiencing depression will evaluate themselves in an excessively negative way, feeling guilty for their actions and even existence. For some this includes thoughts of suicide.**
Depression can arrive immediately, knocking you off your feet, or infiltrate life slowly. You might not realize you’re depressed until one day you are surprised by the sound of your own laugh.
The change of the seasons, a life event, or organic causes could usher it in. We can’t always predict when depression will arrive, but we do know effective practices that can help people move through depression and prevent its onset.
How to Begin Coping with Depression
If depression slows the mind and body, then recovery requires action to counter the decelerating force of depression. Coping with depression is a delicate balance of overcoming inertia while being kind to yourself on days when it is too difficult to use active coping skills.
I remind my clients liberally that recovery is not linear. There will be ups and downs. Before you keep reading, commit to being kind to yourself instead of evaluating harshly whether or not you are doing enough for your recovery.
You are enough on the days when you stay in bed and on the days when you’ve done something from your coping plan. The following coping skills are not a list of things you are failing to do, but a guide for creating space for yourself again in the midst of depression.
Seek out Social Support
Depressive thoughts may tell a person they should be ashamed of their struggle with depression. That they are worthless and unlikeable. These thoughts often stop people from inviting others into their struggle with depression, leaving them isolated with no outside voices to challenge those negative thoughts.
If you are struggling with depression, invite one or several people who you trust into your journey. Telling someone about the feelings and thoughts you are experiencing for the first time may feel vulnerable and uncomfortable.
Your judgmental voice might be screaming, “but what will they think?!,” but on the other side is the relief of knowing you are not in the darkness alone anymore.
You’ll realize that shame only had power in secrecy, and the “monster” of depression isn’t so scary once you point the light towards it. There will be one less person to hide from while you are hustling to make it look like everything is okay.
Borrowing the support and energy of others is sometimes helpful in reestablishing momentum in your life. It is okay to need a literal hand to draw you out of bed, or a phone call to remind you that you are loved when critical thoughts are too hard to drown out.
When humans display the emotion of sadness, other humans are wired to respond with support. Sadness signals to ourselves and others that something is wrong and support is needed.
Assemble a tribe of trusted loved ones to be a net of encouragement and accountability in your recovery.
Connect with Stories from Others
If you are not ready to share with a loved one or friend, consider listening to podcasts, reading blogs or books giving insight into other’s journeys with depression. To counter the shame that comes with depression, these resources can be a reminder that you are not alone.
Other’s stories can remind you that you are not the only person experiencing maddening negative thoughts, loneliness, and zero motivation. They can remind you to look for hope and humor when you’ve forgotten how.
Two of my personal favorite resources are Make It Ok and The Hilarious World of Depression. The Mighty is also an active community where individuals share their experiences with both mental and physical health conditions.
Learn about Behavioral Activation
Behavioral activation is part of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, a therapeutic approach well-known for its effectiveness in treating depression. The goal is to activate participation in activities that add meaning, a sense of accomplishment, and positive emotions to people’s lives.
The concept is straightforward, but it can be difficult to engage in any activity when depression has depleted your motivational reserves. Behavioral activation requires doing the very thing you don’t want to do when you are depressed–socialize, move your body, paint your nails, etc.
Engaging in these positive activities is similar to struggle most people have going to the gym–we don’t want to work out, but feel great once the workout is over. Trust that over time, positive effects from behavior activation will start to surface, even if it’s not noticeable right away.
Behavioral activation can be especially effective when you seek out activities that help you build a skill or sense of achievement over time. This builds mastery, confidence, and competence–which enhances the human sense of self and purpose and challenges the purposelessness and low self-worth characteristic of depression.
With behavioral activation, it helps to start small and choose activities that have meaning for you. Enlist accountability and support from others by telling them your plans and sharing small wins with them. Pinterest can be a fun place to find creative ideas for self-care and positive activities.
Make Time for Exercise
One effective mood-boosting activity to choose for behavioral activation is exercise. The benefits of exercise extend beyond the physical. Especially for depression, exercise is shown to target neurotransmitters involved in depressed mood and release endorphins.
My favorite book that explains the benefits of exercise for the brain is Spark by John J. Ratey, MD. For depression specifically, Ratey explains how exercise increases dopamine and norepinephrine, which boosts mood, improves focus, “wake up the brain,” and turn on the reward centers of the brain.
Exercise gives the brain a “hit,” and in doing so creates a sense of accomplishment having engaged in something that has made our brain feel positive and alive. Over time, your mood, mental alertness and sense of self-efficacy will improve.
Challenge Your Negative Thoughts
Depressive thinking patterns can create a negative filter in the mind, through which we interpret events and evaluates our lives in an excessively negative way. It’s important to notice and start to challenge the thoughts coming through the negative filter, and intentionally seek out alternative information that isn’t making its way through.
Replacing negative thoughts isn’t about forcing yourself to think positive. Instead, we try to temper the negative extreme of our thoughts with more neutral evidence to challenge the story.
For example, you might read your performance review and use constructive criticism as evidence that you are a failure while ignoring the praise of your contributions to your team and growth as an employee.
It takes practice to intentionally seek out evidence to contradict the negative narrative, but we can improve our skills in this area and strengthen new pathways in the brain as we practice. A therapist can be a valuable outside voice to help you notice and challenge the negative thoughts that have taken over your brain.
You don’t have to be optimistic and positive all the time–that is not realistic when battling depression. Simply being more neutral and kinder towards ourselves is enough. The practice of self-compassion can be a nice middle ground. Self-compassion is the art of being kind to yourself when you are in pain, as you would comfort a friend, rather than beat yourself up. No one is harder on you than you.
Banish Shoulds and Comparison
In the spirit of challenging depressive thinking patterns, avoid “shoulding” on yourself and comparing your recovery journey to others. This will reinforce the negative feedback loop magnifying thoughts of worthlessness.
Depression looks different for everyone. It doesn’t always look like not being able to get out of bed. Some people feel their depression is not valid if it does not fit a stereotype, or doesn’t appear to be “that bad.” Others beat themselves up when they see others with depression who seem to be coping “better.”
However, your experience of depression is your experience of depression. And it is 100% valid.
Everyone has a different constellation of biology, life experiences, life circumstances, resources, and family histories that make each mental health journey unique. All you can control is to learn what depression feels like for you and what coping plan is most effective for your emotional and mental health needs at any given time.
Additionally, comparing yourself to others, in general, is going to feed the negative feedback look of depressive thinking. When we’re depressed, we see others seemingly functioning perfectly in the world, so depression tells us, and that we’re failing.
Scrolling and comparing on social media can heighten the negative evaluation of ourselves. Consider gifting yourself with a break from social media to reset your mind. Redirect to give yourself credit for the things you are accomplishing in the midst of depression.
Tune Into Your Emotions
We have emotions for a reason. They often cue us to pay attention to something in our lives like an unmet emotional need. Depression sometimes cues us to slow down, notice a hurt that needs healing, or take care of a situation in our lives that needs our attention. A therapist could be a helpful guide in this process.
Other times, depression is depression, and there might not be an unmet emotional need, and we need to continue engaging in positive coping to create different emotions. We need to balance noticing our emotions with not believing everything they tell us.
While emotions are one part of your life experience, they do not define your experience and it can be unhelpful to act on our emotions. There is a difference in paying attention to our emotions and acting on them. It can be helpful to practice noticing our emotions in a nonjudgmental way, and offering comfort to ourselves without acting on our emotions.
Remember that as stubborn as depression can be, you have not always felt this way, and there will be a time when you feel the fog of depression lift again.
Overcoming Depression with Small Changes Every Day
Instead of expending all of your efforts at once trying to give depression a giant push out of your life, focus on small changes every day. Make one promise to yourself each day about something you will do to boost your mood and take action to combat depression.
Give yourself credit for completing tasks and engaging in self-care. Celebrate small wins.
When you have a day in bed, be kind to yourself, and challenge the voices telling you that you’ve lost and might as well stay in bed the next day, too. Treat each day as its own journey.
If depression is something you’ve been acquainted with for some time, a routine of self-care and behavioral activation is like medicine. Keeping the brain and body in an activated state will help bring you out of and ward off depression.
Depression slows us down, yet we can move through depression by committing to take action and coach ourselves through with compassion.
**If you or someone you care about has thoughts of suicide, support is available 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or by text at 741-741 then typing “HOME.”