By Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH
Depression. One word that can mean so many things. For those who have lived with or currently live with depression, you know very well the effects it can have on your daily life. Depression can drain not only your physical energy, but also your hopes, motivation, enjoyment, and personal drive. You may be aware of all the steps to getting better, but you just cannot get yourself to take even the first one. If this sounds all too familiar to you, you are not alone. And there is hope.
While overcoming depression is neither quick nor easy, it is possible, and there is life after depression. In this post, I will discuss essential tools that will help empower you to take control of many of your symptoms. This post, however, is not a substitute for professional mental health care. If you are currently feeling very depressed, to the point where you are thinking about death or dying, please reach out to a friend or a loved one immediately. If anonymity is important to you, call the helplines below right now:
Helplines you can trust
National Hopeline Network:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
The road to recovery when you have depression is often like a Catch-22, where the things that would help you the most are the ones that are the most difficult to do. With that said, I want to encourage you that there is a huge difference between something that is difficult and something that is impossible. When you feel depressed, just the basic self-care tasks may seem incredibly difficult. But I’m here to tell you that it is not impossible. Actually, just by choosing to read this post, you have already taken the first step to overcoming your symptoms. So, keep on reading, and I’ll take you a few steps further as I discuss the small but positive steps that you can start incorporating into your days. Remember, you do have control, and the fog will lift, and you will find yourself happier, healthier, and more hopeful again.
Symptoms of Depression
- Feeling sad, empty, or anxious a lot of the time
- Feeling helpless, worthless, or guilty
- Feeling hopeless
- Feeling irritable
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Having little or no energy
- Have trouble concentrating
- Sleeping too much or having trouble sleeping
- Eating too much or not wanting to eat
What is Causing Your Depression?
Before I go further, I want to make something clear: depression is not a form of weakness. Even though the symptoms of it can make you feel weak and helpless, depression is not caused by personal weakness, nor is seeking help a sign of it. However, what can play an active role in causing symptoms of sadness and depression are physical chronic illnesses and your environment. This can be further compounded by feelings of frustration, loss of control over your life and your health, and anxiety or fear about the future.
When you have depression, it can feel like a cycle that never ends. Because you feel depressed, you may withdraw and isolate yourself. You may become less physically active. You may drive away friends and family that ask to help. As a result of doing this, you feel even worse. Sometimes, the symptoms may get so bad that you feel as if there is no way out. You may ask yourself, “Will I ever feel happy again?”
I am here to tell you that the answer is yes. It is possible to break out of this cycle. It is possible to feel normal again. And it is possible to gain the joy back into your life. However, because depression is something that is very real and very complex—it essentially boils down to a combination of external stressors with an imbalance in brain chemicals—the treatment for it is also multi-faceted. In this post, I will be discussing one facet of depression management—and that is how to boost your mood through self-care.
While I will not focus on antidepressant medications on this blog, I do want to clarify a common misconception about them: just because a person needs an antidepressant now does not mean that they will need it a year from now…or two years from now. Sometimes, a person may only need medication to help them get through a difficult period of time in their life. Sometimes, they may need it a little longer. Every person’s situation is unique, but the truth remains the same: being on an antidepressant is not a sign of weakness.
With that said, I will now focus on a crucial aspect of depression management: self-care.
– Step 1 –
Make the decision to take control
When it comes to overcoming depression, ultimately, you are the one who is in control. However, until you realize this power and make the active decision to use it, everything will seem out of reach. So, I encourage you, right now, to tell yourself out loud, “I choose to take control of my depression.” Once you do this, you’ve already empowered yourself to take the next step.
– Step 2 –
Reach out and stay connected
While for many people, the first impulse when feeling down or anxious is to withdraw and isolate, getting the right support is a crucial step forward that can help you break out of any negative cycle that you may be trapped in. Rather than feeling ashamed or guilty of your situation, realize that reaching out is a sign of strength, and by doing so, you should be proud of yourself.
- Prioritize personal contact. In this world of texting, social media, and emails, while we may feel like we are always communicating with others, it can actually have the opposite effect of making us feel even more isolated. Instead, have coffee with a friend or meet with a counselor or pastor. The important thing is to get with people who make you feel safe and cared for and to spend time with them.
- Find ways to help others. It has been shown that the simple act of helping others can actually improve our mood more than just passively receiving support. Do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone to volunteer somewhere, help out a friend in need, or simply make an effort to do something nice for someone. It’ll warm your heart and boost your mood.
- Get animal therapy. For many people, being around animals is immensely therapeutic. While nothing can replace the human connection, if you do like animals, consider caring for a small pet or make the effort to be around them.
- Join a support group. Sometimes, we just need to know that we are not alone in our situation. The mutual support and connections that come from support groups can make an immense difference in your outlook and emotional state.
– Step 3 –
Identify your negative thoughts
Do you feel as if your situation is hopeless? That you are powerless to do anything? When you have depression or are feeling down, all your thoughts are processed through a “Depression Filter,” which impacts the way you feel about yourself, the world, and your future. Take a moment to look at the following list. Do any of these apply to you?
Depression Thought Filters
- Over-generalization– Generalizing from a single negative experience (“I can’t do anything right.”).
- Diminishing the positive– Coming up with reasons that minimize the positive (“My boss said I did a good job, but he was just being nice.”).
- Emotional reasoning– Thinking that the way you feel is actually the truth (“I feel like a loser. I am a loser!”)
- All-or-nothing thinking– Looking at everything as being black and white (“If I don’t get this promotion, I’m a total failure.”).
- Labeling– Labeling yourself based on perceived shortcomings (“I’m a failure, because I can never make my wife happy.”).
- Jumping to conclusions– Thinking that you can read other people’s minds and foretell the future (“My boss hates me; I’ll never get a promotion.”).
- The negativity filter– Ignoring your accomplishments but focusing on your mistakes
From now on, whenever you start thinking in one of the above ways, realize that this is simply a symptom of your depression, not a reality. And then go on to the next step…
– Step 4 –
Put your negative thoughts to the test
Now that you know what to look for, whenever you identify one of the Depression Thought Filters, stop and ask yourself the following questions:
- “What concrete, objective evidence do I have that this thought is really true?”
- “Is there an alternate explanation of this situation?”
- “What would I tell a friend who had this kind of thought?”
- “How might I look at this situation if I didn’t have depression?”
– Step 5 –
Get your daily dose of sunlight
Getting enough sunlight is essential, because it not only boosts your serotonin levels (the brain chemical that boosts your mood), but your body also uses sunlight to produce vitamin D. When your body is deficient in vitamin D, it can cause depression or worsen existing depression.
- Go outside. Make sure to get outside daily, ensuring that your arms and legs are exposed to the sun for about 15 minutes each day.
- Let the light in. When indoors, open your windows to let the sunlight in.
- Use a light box. Consider getting a light therapy box if you are unable to get enough daily sunlight.
– Step 6 –
Physical activity has been proven to improve mood by helping to release several brain chemicals that have powerful antidepressant effects. While getting daily physical activity is the best, every step counts.
- Make a plan. Promise yourself to go on a 5 to 10-minute walk this week.
- Practice mindfulness. Be mindful during the activity. Practice the mindfulness exercise discussed in the Instant Relaxation Techniques post while you are walking or doing your activity. This can further help you combat any negative thoughts that might be intruding into your head.
– Step 7 –
Make a Wellness Toolbox
Similar to the Stress Relief Toolbox that was discussed in the Stress Management post, I encourage you to make a personal Wellness Toolbox of 10 to 20 things you enjoy doing. Every day, no matter how you feel, select something off the list and do it. By incorporating this into your days, you are helping yourself prioritize self-care, which will make a considerable difference in your well-being. Example of things that you can include are:
- Journal your thoughts for 10 minutes
- List 5 things that you like about yourself
- List 5 things that you have accomplished
- Read a chapter out of a good book
- Watch a funny movie or TV show
- Take a long, hot bath
- Play with a pet
- Talk to a friend or family face-to-face
- Spend 10 minutes in nature
Depression is not an easy disease to overcome, but it is absolutely possible to take control of it. If you are feeling depressed, have an honest conversation with a trusted health care professional on what your next step should be and what treatment options are most appropriate for you. Remember, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and you will get there.