Updated: Oct 30, 2020
Depression is one of life's most challenging experiences.
I've experienced 3 major depressive episodes and I am constantly taking proactive steps on a daily basis to try not to slip into another one (although science isn't totally clear about how much control we have over this).
When I think of anxiety, I think of this energy that builds and builds until it eventually pops (maybe that’s in the form of a panic attack or large outburst) or maybe it just stays at a manageable level underneath the surface.
But depression never pops. It can be a very scary place because the darkness can just keep getting darker and darker. Your energy and motivation can get less and less. You can be in bed for 3 hours a day then 10 then 24.
I say this not to scare you, but as a reminder and a reason that working with depression requires conscious action. It requires that you’re proactive, often at a time when being proactive is the last thing you want to do.
Here are 5 things you can do today - right now - to work with any symptoms of depression you might be facing and to keep you pushing forward.
1. Be mindful of your thoughts
When you're prone to depression or in a depressive episode, you’re likely to have more negative thoughts than normal. You’re seeing the world through a darker lens. One with less shimmer and less hope.
👉It’s important that you recognize, name, and label your experience. "I'm struggling with depression, therefore my thoughts are going to be more negative/slightly skewed than normal."
It's easy to believe the content of our thoughts and assume what we're thinking must be true.
But it's important to look critically at your thoughts and ask yourself if they're serving you and if they're grounded in reality.
You can honor the emotions behind your thoughts (more on that with #4), but believing the thoughts themselves can be dangerous and feeds your depression.
Try to catch yourself in your negative thinking.
What cognitive distortions are at play?
Are you catastrophizing?
Are you worrying about the future?
Are you taking things personally?
Are you beating yourself up with negative self-talk?
It may feel like you’ll be stuck here forever. It may feel like there’s no hope or that the world is out to get you or that nothing will ever feel fun again. But these thoughts are often distorted and fear-based and they don't serve you.
When these types of thoughts become the automatic script in your head, you’re enforcing a story that will perpetuate your depression and keep you stuck.
2. Take opposite action
There is a DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) skill called opposite action which encourages you to act in opposition to your emotional urges.
Depression has a slow, tired, and heavy energy to it. So enacting opposite action would be choosing to do something that has more light and upbeat energy.
Depression lends itself to loneliness and isolation. Opposite action would say reach out and do something with people.
Depression can suck you into tunnel vision, thinking your problems are so big, and that life is happening to you (rather than for you). Opposite action would be getting out into the world to gain perspective and zoom out your lens a little bit.
Recently I was struggling with motivation and spent a day feeling glued to my bed. I ran through a list of possible opposite actions I could take that would switch up my energy.
I remembered that I still have about 100 thank-you notes to write from my wedding back in February. 😱
This seemed like a perfect opposite action to take. It was convenient (which made it less daunting), required me to give, required me to tap into love and gratitude, and it connected me to people.
Opposite action doesn’t have to be anything big or crazy. It's just the act of choosing to do something other than what sounds good (laying in bed), because you know there's a possibility it will make you feel better or flip a switch in your brain.
Opposite action might look like:
Sending a text to someone checking in on them
Going for a walk
Going to a coffee shop or busy restaurant to people-watch and feel connected to humanity
Going for a drive
Listening to loud, upbeat music
Writing love notes to people you care about
Dancing/jumping around in your living room
If you're looking for some quick, action steps to improve your mental health during COVID, be sure to download my free guide below!
3. Do things you “used to” enjoy
I remember my mom once told me about this trick when I was struggling with one of my previous depressive episodes. If you’ve ever been depressed you know that nothing ever “sounds good.” I can hear myself and clients saying that frequently. “I don’t want to do that. It doesn’t sound good. I won’t enjoy it.”
Okay. Maybe you won’t.
The point isn’t to do something that sounds good to you now.
The point is to keep living your life so that depression doesn’t suck you under the bed covers.
When nothing sounds good, ask yourself “What did I used to enjoy doing?” Whether that was months ago or years ago. "What used to bring me joy?"
Dancing? Horseback riding? Doing art projects? Baking? Going to happy hour with friends? Watching The Office? Weekend road trips?
And try not to get discouraged if it doesn’t feel as fun or enjoyable this time around. That’s the depression talking. Remember those negative thoughts from #1? They’re going to taint your experiences and cloud your joy.
But these activities are your lifeboats. They will keep you from slipping further into your depression.
You may not recognize their benefit in the moment (although sometimes you can and that feels REALLY nice), but once you have come on the other side of your depressive episode you’ll be able to see how those activities kept you going. They kept you from totally disengaging from life.
4. Spend time with your feelings
In Buddhism, there’s a teaching about the first and second arrows.
🏹 The first arrow represents the inevitable pain you will experience in life. You cannot avoid it.
🏹 The second arrow represents suffering. Suffering is your interpretation of the pain. It’s the story you make up. You don’t have to endure a second arrow.
I encourage you to spend time with your first arrow feelings. The sadness, pain, grief that exist in your body. They’re there and they need to be honored and felt.
And then be mindful of the thoughts that often serve as a trigger for the second arrow.
👉You have the first arrow emotion which is the original, true pain → then you have a negative thought, possibly a cognitive distortion, or you recall a story, make up a story, etc. about this pain→ then you experience a second arrow emotion in response to this thought.
This is how it might look:
You feel sadness → You have a thought that this sadness might stay forever → Then you feel fear
You feel grief → You have the thought that your life is doomed → Then you feel hopeless
You feel pain → You have the thought that bad things always happen to you → Then you feel angry
Try to stay with your first emotion. Feel it, lean into it, and honor it. It’s okay to cry a lot. It’s okay to feel down. Allow those emotions to exist.
And then try not to feed them with thoughts that will only create a second arrow and perpetuate your suffering longer than necessary.
5. Seek professional help
Please. There is no substitute for therapy. This isn’t a plug for me because I’M not a substitute for therapy. My coaching isn’t therapy.
Seeing a therapist is one of the best things you can do when you’re struggling with depression.
On a surface level, it’s consistent human interaction that gets you out of bed.
On a deeper level, it’s space for you to show up and be seen.
A therapist will help you:
Notice your negative thought patterns
Stay accountable for taking opposite action and give you ideas you can implement
Explore the things that used to bring you joy and encourage you to try them
Feel your emotions right then and there. In the room.
Work with your emotions, because sometimes that is scary to do on your own or you're not even sure how to access them.
There are more ways to find a therapist now than ever before.
Here are a few starting places:
Psychology Today has a database of therapists that you can filter by different criteria.
Inclusive therapists is another online database of therapists who specifically market themselves as being inclusive.