When battling depression, many people go to their medical doctor and get a prescription for an antidepressant. The recommended treatment for mild to moderate depression is psychotherapy and, if needed, a prescription for an antidepressant. Medication seems to be the first line of defense. Psychotherapy is rarely mentioned. In addition, there are many things clients can do for themselves to reduce depression symptoms, yet this information is rarely presented either. You can try these techniques instead of medication if you are mildly or moderately depressed. You can use them in addition to medication if more severely depressed. What are some of these things you can do for yourself?
A lot of things you can do for depression require you to do the opposite of how you feel when depressed. Depressed people often stay indoors, do not go out, keep the drapes drawn and the lights out. They often sleep all day and stay up all night. They do not exercise or clean house. They frequently let their hygiene go. They do not "take care of business" such as bills, errands, etc. They do not socialize and will stop seeing friends or family. They will not answer the door or the phone. They tend to live on sugar and caffeine and may resort to stronger drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their depression. They may remain stuck in a rut in their work, their relationships or their life in general. They live in a black hole from which there is no light. (And I say a black hole rather than a tunnel. A tunnel has a light at the end. Depressed people often see no light at the end of a tunnel, only endless darkness. And from this comes an immense feeling of hopelessness.) They see no hope for the future.
How can this be reversed? By forcing yourself to do the opposite of how you feel. Here are a few examples.
1. Expose Yourself - To Sunshine
Research has shown that exposure to sunshine reduces depression. This makes perfect sense. People struggling with depression typically avoid sunlight and prefer darkened rooms with the curtains drawn. This only exacerbates feelings of isolation, sadness and hopelessness. Even if you just go sit outside, exposing yourself to sunlight will help lift your mood.
Melatonin is a natural hormone that the body produces which lulls you to sleep. People struggling with depression tend to sleep all day and stay up all night. This usually results in less deep sleep, or REM sleep. REM sleep is when your mind dreams and your body repairs the damage done during the day. It is important to maintain healthy sleep patterns when fighting any type of mental illness or mental stressor. If you are sleeping during the day and staying awake at night, this also puts you in conflict with the natural rhythms of the Earth. It is important to reset your natural sleep patterns and this can be done with a natural hormone that is generic and available over the counter - melatonin. Find out more about how melatonin works and why I recommend it in my article, "Insomnia and Melatonin".
People struggling with depression often find themselves with greatly reduced levels of energy and increased levels of fatigue. The last thing in the world they feel like doing is exercising, yet this may be the antithesis to fatigue. Exercise does not have to be intense or long. A simple 30 minute walk around the block serves two purposes: it increases your exposure to sunlight and gets you up and moving, both of which will lift your mood and increase your energy and motivation.
Depression can make you isolate and avoid contact with other people. You don't get the mail. You don't answer the phone. You don't answer the door. You don't leave the house. You avoid contact with other people. If you want to beat depression you have to reverse this pattern. Be careful not to surround yourself with other people who are also depressed. This only reinforces your own depression. Force yourself to meet with upbeat, happy people. Go to lunch with old friends. Get out of the house. See new faces and visit new places.
5. Change your Diet
People fighting depression often use a diet of caffeine, simple carbs and sugars in an attempt to boost their energy. But this is a false boost. Simple carbs and sugars will boost your mood temporarily but cause it to plummet in a few hours when the effects wear off. This roller coaster effect only exacerbates feelings of depression. It's better to eat whole grains, fruits, vegetables and proteins. Proteins provide your body with the amino acids it needs to make those neurotransmitters your brain so desperately needs to feel better (i.e. Serontonin, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine). Complex carbs such as whole grains and vegetables provide the fuel for energy, but do it gradually. Fruits provide fructose, a more complex sugar than the simple sugars found in candy. Because it requires more processing for the body to break it down and turn it into energy, it enters your bloodstream more slowly and tapers off more gradually.
To lift your mood, use exercise, sunshine, socialization and fresh air. Use nutrition to provide you with the fuel for these activities rather than depending on it for a false high that crashes later only to leave you feeling more depressed than before.
6. Avoid drugs and alcohol
Cocaine, methamphetamine, speed and other stimulants are frequently used by people struggling with depression to artificially lift their mood. Like using caffeine and simple sugars, the "high" is quick and intense, but when these drugs wear off, the depression is worse than before. Other clients use alcohol, heroin, benzodiazepines and other "downers" to numb the psychological pain. Downers may numb the pain temporarily, but increase depression and may even cause depression in those who have not had it before.
Research has shown that the bacteria found in dirt lifts the mood. Gardening also requires you to be outdoors and therefore, exposed to sunshine. My mother used to say that gardening is "an investment in the future". This is so true and a major reason why it's helpful in fighting depression. Gardeners plant in the spring for the summer and in fall for the spring. For people with depression, it's hard to see out of the black hole in which their mind is trapped. The future is unthinkable and the hopelessness is palpable. Engaging in an activity which invests them in a future, and a future filled with beauty, can help get them out of that mindset.
8. Eliminate stressors
These days many of us are working more and more for less and less. Budgets are tight and financial sterssors alone can be killers. We are also a society which is constantly on the go, getting kids to school and social events, making social appointments are selves, running to the gym or the yoga class, racing out for groceries, sprinting around town to pay bills and run errands. Sometimes we overload our schedules with things which aren't as important as we think they are. Check your priorities. Look at your schedule. Examine your life. What are your priorities? Are you devoting as much time to them as you would like? Perhaps taking your kids to the park and sitting together for a family dinner is more important than soccer, or the gym or running errands for the neighbor. Perhaps you need more quiet time for yourself. If so, schedule time with friends or "alone" time for quiet contemplation. Perhaps you need a lighter workload. Look at your budget. Perhaps you can live without that new car, bigger house or those expensive electronics and spend more time at home instead of working for those few extra bucks.
9. Change jobs
If you are in a dead end, unfulfilling job or working too long for too little, it may be time to find work that is more satisfying. Americans spend more time at work than Europeans and have to work longer for less. This eats up a lot of time and energy. If you are very unhappy in an endeavor where you spend the majority of your time, this will eventually take its emotional toll. I have worked with clients who cried all the way to work during the commute every morning. They stay up all night because going to sleep means waking up and going to work. They use drugs and alcohol or psychiatric medications to numb them to the misery in which they are wallowing. Find what you love, then do it. If you don't know what you love, you may want to see a career counselor. They can provide assessments which can help you find where your interests lie and the skills you possess which may allow you to break into a different line of employment. Breaking the chains that bind you to a miserable job may be the change you need to breathe life back into your life.
10. Change your relationships
Most people have a pattern of relationships that does not change much, unless they work to change it. If you tend to surround yourself with people who use you, abuse you, have drug or alcohol problems, have depression or other psychological problems, or are excessively needy you may sink into a depressive state from the sheer mental exhaustion of always meeting their needs instead of your own. You may have a family who puts excessive demands upon you, either your family of origin or your own family. You may surround yourself with friends who are constantly in need, but never have the time or inclination to reciprocate when you yourself could use a helping hand.
Relationships should be an equal exchange of give and take. Look at your relationship patterns and see if they are fulfilling your needs as well as the other person's. If not, it might be time to learn a new pattern and seek out different kinds of people with whom to interact.
11. Express your anger
Suppressed anger turns into depression. It takes a lot of energy to hold down anger, so it's healthier to let it out. Unfortunately, a lot of people equate anger with aggression, violence or rage. This is simply not the case. Anger is a natural human emotion, and that's all it is, an emotion. And it is a necessary emotion. Without anger we are defenseless. Anger is what tells us that we are being mistreated. Anger is what makes us stand up and say, "Hey, you can't treat me like that". Sometimes anger is gives us the energy and power to rise to a difficult situation and fight back against incredible odds; against a disease like cancer or a social problem, like oppression or discrimination.
Anger is simply what we feel. We have a choice about how we choose to express it. Anger can be expressed in a calm, quiet way, such as simply telling someone that they you will not allow them to treat you that way. It can also be as simple as saying, "No" to someone who is taking advantage of you, or "Yes" to a challenge that threatened to overwhelm you. If you are sitting on a mountain of anger, find an appropriate and healthy way to vent it. You may find that the energy you derive from this release negates the depression that has held you down.
12. Stimulate Your Mind
Depression can be worsened when we are locked in a mind numbing routine which never changes. Minds need healthy stimulation. Take yourself to an art gallery, a concert, or a picnic at the park. Sign up for an art class or audit classes at your local community college or university. Expose your mind to new sights, sounds or ideas. The new information will stir it up and give it something healthy and positive to think about rather than the bleak, repetitive ruminations which occur during depressive episodes.
13. Clean Your House
Cleaning house when depressed often requires a Herculean effort. But it can make a big difference in how you feel. Schlepping around in a dirty, cluttered house all day really brings you down. It's a reflection of how you feel and how you feel about yourself. Schedule just 15 minutes a day for housecleaning, or break it into one small area or one small project to keep it from being overwhelming.
14. Drink Plenty of Water
Dehydration causes fatigue and fatigue worsens depression. Dehydration can reduce blood volume and diminish blood flow to the organs, slowing down your brain and impairing concentration and memory, common problems for people with depression. Drink water throughout the day to boost energy levels and sharpen your thinking. Don't wait until your thirsty. You might find it helpful to keep bottles of water in the fridge that you can grab and take with you. Drink water while sitting on the bus, the subway or during that commute to work. Drink water while waiting for appointments. Keep a bottle of water on your desk to drink throughout the work day. Drink water with meals instead of tea, coffee or sodas, all of which cause dehydration. Personally, I take a chilled liter of water to work to sip on all day, then drink another liter in the evenings. But find what works best for you.
Anything you can do to lift your mood and fight the symptoms of depression will help you feel less helpless and hopeless. Taking care of yourself will empower you to do what you need to do to feel better and will lessen the feelings of depression. As always, I recommend that everyone find their own path and honor their own wisdom in their search for mental health.