If you have been feeling increasingly down or depressed lately, you are not alone. Surveys worldwide have shown that the vast majority of people feel that the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant negative effect on their mental health and wellbeing—and it’s no surprise why. The stress of social isolation compounded with the daily onslaught of negative news—along with existing worries about health, work, and family life—is more than enough to trigger depression for the first time or exacerbate symptoms in those who have already been diagnosed.
No matter where you are in your journey, this article will provide some practical strategies that will help you counteract negative thoughts and feelings of loneliness while improving your mood and helping you feel less depressed.
Feeling Depressed: There is Hope
When you are feeling depressed, life can seem overwhelmingly bleak and hopeless. The symptoms of depression have a way of interfering with your ability to think straight while simultaneously draining your energy and making it difficult to get through each day. Even if you have never felt depressed before, you should know that it is normal to feel this way during such stressful times of uncertainty. Whatever the cause, I must firstly reiterate something that I feel is always important to make clear: Depression is not due to personal weakness. Feeling depressed is not a sign of weakness. And seeking help (either through counseling or taking antidepressants) should never be seen as a weakness. I go into this a little more in this article on overcoming depression.
Although it may not feel like it at the moment, there is hope, and you will eventually feel better. However, 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, consider using one of the helplines below:
5 Practical Steps to Help Boost Your Mood
– Step 1 –
Make the decision to take control
This is one of the most important first steps when it comes to managing depression. When it comes to overcoming the feelings of sadness and loneliness, ultimately, you are the one who is in control (even though it may not feel like it). However, until you realize this power and make the active decision to use it, everything will seem out of reach. Therefore I encourage you, right now, to tell yourself aloud, “I choose to take control of my feelings.” Once you do this, you’ve already empowered yourself to take the next step.
– Step 2 –
Be proactive in connecting with others
While meeting with friends or gathering with family is not feasible for most of us at the moment, that does not mean you have to allow yourself to feel isolated and alone. While nothing truly compares to the therapeutic effect of face-to-face contact, video calls, phone calls, and even meaningful texting can still help you feel connected. So go ahead and take this opportunity to reach out to an old friend, or schedule a fun online get-together with a group of people. By reaching out to loved ones regularly, you will be reminded that we are all in this together and that you are truly not alone.
What if you don’t want to reach out? Even if your first inclination when feeling depressed is to want to self-isolate and disconnect, it’s okay. This is a very common feeling. The important thing is to be proactive in taking small steps forward so that you can eventually overcome the isolation. So go ahead and acknowledge the negative feeling, but then go forward and take action by reaching out to someone.
Do you need a little help setting achievable goals? This article on Health Action Planning can help.
- Moving beyond the surface to really connect: The dangerous thing about the convenience of communication through technology is that it is easy to be stuck in the realm of small talk. But sometimes, staying on the surface can actually cause you to end up feeling even more alone afterwards. In order to establish a connection that will truly help ease loneliness and depression, sometimes it’s necessary to take a risk and open up. Whether you’re in person, on the phone, or texting, it’s important to strive for more than a superficial connection. Rather, share about what you’re going through and the feelings you’re experiencing. More often than not, you will realize that you are not alone in your feelings.
– Step 3 –
Get enough sunlight (or consider a light box)
Getting enough exposure to sunlight is essential when you are feeling down or depressed, because natural light not only increases your serotonin levels (the brain chemical that boosts mood), but your body also uses sunlight to produce vitamin D. When your body is deficient in vitamin D, it can actually cause depression or worsen existing symptoms. However, in order for your body to make enough vitamin D, your bare arms and legs actually need to be exposed to sunlight for 15 minutes a day, which can be difficult to do in the winter. In this case, you might want to ask your doctor about trying out a light box. Here is an article from Mayo Clinic where you can learn more about the use of light boxes to improve mood.
– Step 4 –
Practice gratitude and start a gratitude journal
When you’re feeling depressed—especially during times of stress and uncertainty—it can seem like everything in life is bleak and hopeless. But even in the darkest days, it is possible to find one thing you can be grateful for, whether it’s something as notable as your health, family, and faith…or something as seemingly insignificant as a potted plant on your desk that makes you smile when you look at it.
- Keeping a gratitude journal: What is a gratitude journal? It is, quite simply, a tool to help you keep track of all the things you are grateful for. Gratitude journals can be remarkably useful and effective at improving your mood when you are feeling down or depressed. Below are some of the reasons why:
- Gratitude journaling, like many gratitude practices, lowers your stress levels
- It can help you feel calmer, especially at night
- It gives you a new perspective on what is important to you and what you truly appreciate in your life
- It helps you gain clarity on what you want to have more of in your life and what you can do without
- It helps you find out and focus on what really matters to you
- It helps you to learn more about yourself and become more self-aware
Your gratitude journal is for your eyes only, so you can write anything you feel without worrying about judgment from others. On days when you feel depressed, you can read through your gratitude journal to recalibrate yourself and to help remember all the good things in your life.
– Step 5 –
Incorporate more healthy habits into your days
While this is arguably one of the most important aspects of managing and overcoming the symptoms of depression, this is also one of the most difficult things to do for someone who is trapped inside the cycle of depression. When you’re feeling depressed, you might be aware of all the things you should do, but you just don’t have the desire, energy, or willpower to do them.
Nonetheless, your daily habits play a huge role in helping you overcome depression. Especially during times such as now when most of us are stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is tempting to slip into unhealthy habits. You may sleep irregular hours, overeat due to stress, or drink too much out of boredom. If this sounds like you, be encouraged. What matters is that you take one step at a time, one day at a time, to make positive changes in your life.
- Get moving with light exercise:
- While depression undoubtedly can cause you to feel tired and unmotivated, physical activity is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your mood. Even light exercise (such as a brisk walk) has been proven to improve mood by helping to release several brain chemicals that have powerful antidepressant effects. Not only that, but exercise also helps to release endorphins, which are natural painkillers that can help with chronic pain issues. While getting regular, daily physical activity is best, it’s important to remember that every step counts.
- Practice relaxation techniques:
- Elevate your diet:
- In times of stress, we often turn to comfort foods that are full of unhealthy fats, sugar, and refined carbs. But these foods, along with too much caffeine and alcohol, can cause fluctuations in insulin levels and negatively impact your mood. Instead, focus on fresh, wholesome foods whenever possible and increase your intake of mood-enhancing nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids.
- Optimize your sleep quality:
- Just as depression can affect your quality of sleep, poor sleep can also worsen the symptoms of depression. When you are well rested, it’s easier to maintain your emotional balance and have more energy and focus to tackle your other depression symptoms. Having trouble sleeping? This article will give you some practical tips on getting better sleep.
*Essential information such as that presented in “Feeling Depressed? Coping with Depression during COVID” can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.