Depression is a heavy, dark presence that lowers itself into your life like a murky, oppressive fog. Depression happens to all of us to varying degrees* and at different times in our lives. For some, depression occurs at a deeper level and for longer periods of time. For others, it shows up randomly and without notice.
Regardless of how each of us experiences depression, coping with it is never easy.
A big part of what sucks about depression is how it alters our perspective of the world around us. Food suddenly tastes different, you don’t enjoy things you normally do, you feel detached from the people in your life – to name a few.
This is an incredibly confusing space to be stuck in, when everything that’s familiar to you becomes unfamiliar. Where do you even begin to find your way out of this hole?
As with any monumental task, start small. Before you spend time figuring out what you’re going to do, take some time to go over what’s equally important: what you’re not going to do.
What Not to Do When You’re Depressed
Don’t make big decisions when you’re depressed.
Depression affects every part of you, which includes your ability to make clear decisions and to not make impulsive decisions. What you don’t want is to have to clean up a mess of poorly made decisions further down the road. Sometimes when we’re depressed we just need to coast until we arrive at a place where our judgment is more sound – and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s a wise course of action.
This isn’t to say that you should just sit there like a lump when you’re depressed. However, be mindful that your decision-making abilities are impaired, and that your perception on everything has been altered. Make decisions slowly and carefully, and consult with other people you trust who can offer objective points of view.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
Just as a cold or the flu knocks you on your ass, depression does the same. Don’t waste time wondering why you’re not feeling up to going to that party, why you need to take a sick day from work, or why you’re feeling more tired than usual. Putting a lot of pressure on yourself while you’re depressed because you want to feel better can have the opposite effect of deepening your depression.
Of all the times in your life when you deserve to give yourself a break, this is the time.
Don’t put a lot of junk into your body.
I’ll spare you the lecture on not drinking too much alcohol, smoking too much weed, etc. when you’re depressed (‘cause it’ll make it worse) – but I will offer a friendly bit of advice to be mindful that what you eat also affects your depression. Over-eating junk food as a coping mechanism affects your digestion, your energy levels, your sense of self-respect – to name a few.
While you are giving yourself a break during this time, keep in mind that a bowl of ice cream and a bag of chips are temporary fixes to a much bigger problem. And there’s nothing wrong with temporary fixes – as long as you’re honest with yourself about the temporary-ness of them.
What to Do When You’re Depressed
On the opposite end of the spectrum, during depressed times in our lives we might have the tendency to sit in a hole and wallow away in our misery. While you will need to be kind and gentle with yourself, and maybe even retreat from the world a bit more than you normally would, it remains important to gently nudge yourself towards a path of healing.
Do make distraction your friend.
We often think of distraction in a negative context – something that over-active children or a smartphone-obsessed society need to be schooled on. But during times of depression, distraction is beneficial because it temporarily alleviates your pain.
Surround yourself with things that you can use to distract yourself: books, music, puzzles, snacks, people, etc. Just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean you have to sit in that feeling of depression and stare it in the face. Sure, there will be times when you’ll need to buckle down and focus, but there are all the moments in between those times when getting out of your head is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Give yourself permission to be distracted.
Do lean on others.
Just as you might need a friend to help you up the stairs when you have a broken ankle, so too will you need that friend when you’re feeling down and out. Talking about what you’re going through, even if you don’t fully understand it, has a therapeutic effect and will help you gain perspective in a way that keeping your thoughts inside never will. Oftentimes talking to others is less about communicating something to that person, and more about communicating something to yourself.
You may not feel up to chatting with others, and that’s okay too. Sometimes depression can put a strain on your relationships (especially when you try to ignore your depression), so it’s important to let those close to you know you’re not feeling well and that it’s got nothing to do with them. 95% of people will understand – and if they don’t then it’s their issue, not yours.
Do try to lift yourself out of depression – but in a gentle way.
You cannot simply “snap out of” depression anymore than you can “shake off” a broken ankle, and when someone suggests that you “just cheer up” please thank them – on behalf of everyone who’s ever been depressed – for the oh-so-helpful suggestion.
At the same time, though, it’s important to start gently leading yourself out of your depressed state – even if you’re not sure how the hell to do that. By “gentle” I mean to highlight the importance of being patient with yourself, treating yourself with kindness, and taking the time you need to understand what’s happening to you and what you can do to improve your situation. When you push yourself too hard, you are denying yourself the need and the right to recover from illness.
So much of what depression is about is linked to our relationship with our self – we are our own worst critiques, we beat ourselves up, we expect a lot from ourselves. Being gentle with yourself is a practice all of us can benefit from, especially when we’re depressed. In and of itself, self-kindness guides all of us toward a path of healing.
Give yourself permission to be kind to yourself and you will automatically steer yourself toward a place of clarity about what’s happening inside you and what you can do to make it better.
Depression Is Many Things, But There’s One Thing It Is Not
Typically, our first impulse when we’re depressed is to try to “figure things out.” We’re raised to believe that we’re capable of logically thinking our way out of any situation, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. Complex states, like depression, come about as the result of a culmination of countless different factors, something our singularly focused minds can’t always piece together.
While collectively we understand depression as a culmination of different factors, for the individual it exists as one big lump of hurt sitting inside you. Trying to find your way out of depression can feel like wading through a thick, oppressive fog filled with so many negative emotions: You feel helpless because you’re frustrated, and frustrated because you’re confused, and confused because you’re apathetic, and the list goes on and on and on….
Where do you even begin to tackle this mess?
In spite of the overwhelming mess of feelings and symptoms you’re experiencing, there is one place all of us can start – one thing we can all focus on. While depression is a lot of things, there’s one thing I know for a fact that it isn’t: It isn’t you. Depression is not who you are, depression is not how you’re meant to be, depression is not what defines you as a person.
Set aside all that junk messing up your head and focus on a single, self-guiding thought:
I am not my depression.
Looking for further reading on the topic? Try these:
- Managing Emotions: Tips and Tricks
- 5 Common Myths about Talk Therapy
- 10 Hacks for Heavy Emotions
- Antidepressants: To Take Them or Not to Take Them?
- Emotional Overload and the Messy Pile-Up
*Please note: I would always suggest chatting with your doctor or health professional if you have serious concerns about depression in your life.