This post was updated on March 22, 2015 to incorporate suggestions from a reader.
Recently I was asked by an acquaintance for some suggestions for dealing with a bout of depression. As I was writing these out it occurred to me that the material might have some general interest, so I decided to publish it as a new post.
Over the years I have worked with a great many people who expressed concerns about dealing with depression. These are the suggestions I gave these individuals which I believe were the most helpful:
1. Try to keep the whole question of mood/feelings in perspective. Mood is transient. Today we feel up, tomorrow down. Inside your head, try to convince yourself that mood isn’t really such a big deal, and that how you interact with the world and with other people is more important.
2. Get on top of a bout of depression as soon as it begins. Start taking action at the first sign of a negative feeling.
3. To facilitate this process, make a list of slogans or mantras that have a positive, uplifting content, that you can say to yourself when needed, e.g.: the sun will rise tomorrow morning; all things come to those who wait; the darkest hour is just before the dawn; I can do this; get up and get going; etc.. Say them to other people too – but don’t get carried away.
4. Some time when you’re feeling good, act depressed. The point here is that depression is mostly behavior. So identify the behaviors that characterize your depression, and just act them out – hanging your head; sighing; slouching in a chair; lying in a fetal position; slowed gait; slowed speech – whatever actions that would indicate to another person that you were feeling down. Act these out for a specified period – say 15 minutes – then abruptly say stop! (either silently, or if alone, out loud) and do indeed stop and resume normal activity. The point here is that you are teaching yourself how to break out of a down mood. You are in effect rehearsing. Rehearse often, and it will become easier to break out of the real thing. The general point is that if we pose to ourselves the challenge of changing our moods, this can feel daunting. But changing behavior is commonplace – we change our behaviors all the time, and with lots of success. In general, mood follows behavior – not the reverse (as is commonly assumed).
5. When all else fails, it’s our systems that save us (one of my little mantras that has served me well for most of my life). The point here is to conduct a really thorough examination of your life – your daily routines – and ask yourself – Are they good routines? Do they help me? Are there places I could make them better? By routines I mean: getting up at a certain time; eating breakfast; brushing teeth; eating good meals; etc., etc… Make sure that your routines contain the seven natural anti-depressants. Then – stick to your routine no matter how you feel. Tell yourself – when all else fails, it is our routines that save us – say it to others too. Sell it to yourself! It often happens that a person had good routines at an earlier time of life, but circumstances changed (e.g. empty nest), and the routines no longer work. Routines have to be updated as our life circumstances change. Make sure that one of your routines is to make your bed. An unmade bed is a depressing sight! So establish the routine of making your bed immediately after rising. It takes about two minutes.
6. Make sure that you are routinely and regularly engaging in some activities that you truly love. Identify four or five such activities. And make sure that they really are things you like to do – not things that someone has told you that you like. Perhaps you like throwing Frisbees, or fishing, or dating, or gardening, or rollerblading, or playing baseball … etc., etc., etc… Identify several of these kinds of activities and make whatever arrangements you need to ensure that you can engage in at least one of these activities for a reasonable length of time each day. It’s easy to become so embroiled in the things we have to do that we neglect the things we like to do. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” – literally. Say this to yourself as a mantra but use your own name instead of Jack.
7. The other things we all need every day are feelings of success. Here again, this has to be highly individualized. I, for instance, all my adult life, have greatly enjoyed remodeling and building generally. I love planning a project, getting started, struggling with the snags, and seeing it through to completion. This gives me feelings of success as well as feelings of great joy. Even though my health is significantly compromised at present, I still do what I can in this area. But you have to find your sources of success. Perhaps you could write short stories, or paint pictures, or build music boxes, or … whatever. There’s no limit to the kinds of things a person can get involved in nowadays. If you’re not sure what would work for you – try different things. Go to hobby stores – shop around for ideas. (The Internet makes this even easier nowadays.)
8. Believe in yourself. Believe that you can make changes in your life. Convince yourself that you are in charge of your life – you’re driving not drifting. The ship of life has a rudder. (That’s another mantra.)
9. When black thoughts come to you, switch to happier themes. (Change the channel.) Have a collection of happy thoughts that you can switch to in times of need. Perhaps scenes from your childhood; or periods of success in your life, etc…
10. Recognize your strengths, but at the same time don’t demand perfection from yourself. We all mess up from time to time, and we have to accept our failures. Re-label your failures as “periods of learning.”
11. Make sure that you have at least one person with whom you can talk with complete openness and honesty. When you’re feeling down, talk to that person. Share your fears, worries, concerns, etc… . A trouble shared is a trouble halved! If you have no one like this to turn to, consider going to a counselor – one who will listen to you as a person and not see you simply as a walking diagnosis.
12. Be careful of sympathy. Sympathy, when it is genuine, is a powerful balm for our troubles. The genuine sympathizer feels our plight, but also wants to help us get to a better place. But there are sympathizers who, although genuinely caring, have nevertheless an emotional need to keep us down, and it is easy to become trapped in the role of sympathy-recipient. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with expressions of sympathy, but ideally they should be balanced by expressions of encouragement and offers of assistance.
These are general pointers that, of course, would need to be adapted to one’s own circumstances.