Guest Writer: Erin Heger
Depression can cause low energy levels, a desire to withdraw from your friends and family, and difficulty completing daily tasks. Even when you apply coping mechanisms to manage depression, there may be times when you feel like the condition is getting the best of you.
“[Depression] essentially hijacks the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that enables us to use logic and think clearly, and shapes our thoughts and worldviews to be incredibly negative and hopeless,” says Max Maisel, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.
Even though depression can feel like an endless loop of negative thoughts, there are ways to break through and effectively manage the condition. Here’s how.
1. Stay connected and find support
Social connection is fundamental to human health and well-being, but depression makes it really difficult to keep those connections strong.
“Depression looks differently for everybody, but common negative thoughts people have when depressed are ‘I am a burden to others,’ ‘I am worthless,’ ‘It’s pointless,'” Maisel says. “Their depression may even tell them that their friends and family are better off without them around.”
Even though it can feel challenging, reaching out and leaning on your support system is actually one of the best things someone with depression can do.
“Social connection is necessary to help people begin to challenge the idea that they are worthless, to give them something to live for, to allow them space to process their emotions, and to feel connected to somebody outside of themselves,” Maisel says.
To maintain social connection and find support when depressed, Maisel recommends these tips:
- Don’t mistake your thoughts for reality. You might feel worthless and think that calling a friend is futile, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Even if you don’t feel like it, you might find that reaching out for support can make you feel better afterward.
- Devote your energy to positive influences. Focus on spending time with people who try to build you up and are there to help. “Not all social connection is healthy,” Maisel says. “Feeling depressed might be a sign that certain relationships are toxic or unhelpful.”
- Let people in. If there is somebody you trust, it can be a good idea to let them know how you are feeling. “Think about if your loved one was suffering,” Maisel says. “Would you want to know how they are feeling so you can be there for them?”
- Try online connection. If meeting up with or talking to someone in person feels like too much for you, try to seek out online support or look into virtual meetups. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance offers online support groups and so does the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
2. Take care of yourself
Along with a lack of self-worth, people with depression may feel decreased motivation and a loss of enjoyment for life, says Judith Feld, MD, and national medical director for Ontrak, Inc., a behavioral health care provider.
In fact, it’s common for people with depression to stop caring about their health and hygiene, Feld says. They may even stop showering for several days, stop brushing their teeth, or stop exercising. This can exacerbate feelings of worthlessness or shame and end up making the depression worse.
So, even though sticking to a routine can be difficult for someone with depression, it can also be really important to have structure. It might be helpful to start with two or three small tasks that you do every morning. For example, taking a few moments to stretch and make your bed when you wake up can be a good place to start.
But there’s no need to put pressure on yourself to maintain a high level of productivity, Feld says. Be proud of the small tasks you are doing to take care of yourself. Something as simple as organizing your work area or putting away laundry is an accomplishment.
Your appetite may also be affected by depression. You might feel the urge to eat all the time or not at all. A healthy diet is important, and certain foods can actually influence the chemicals in your brain, such as serotonin, that are linked to depression. Foods that may help relieve depressive symptoms include:
- Fruits like berries and pomegranates
- Fish like salmon or anchovies
- Probiotic foods like yogurt or kimchi
- Nuts like walnuts and pecans
- Cacao like dark chocolate
For more information, read about the foods that battle depression.
3. Get sunshine and physical activity
Though it can be difficult to get outside, spending some time in the sun can be very helpful in alleviating depression symptoms, Maisel says. That’s because Vitamin D — which our bodies mainly get through sunlight — can help elevate your mood.
In fact, a Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk for depression. Though researchers aren’t sure if getting more Vitamin D alone is enough to prevent or treat depression.
But physical activity can. For example, a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that as little as one hour of exercise a week can help prevent future episodes of depression.
Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which can make you feel happier and decrease stress. The type of exercise doesn’t matter as much as finding something you enjoy and sticking with it, Maisel says. Getting outside, even for just a short walk around the block, is a great place to start.
It may also help to find an exercise buddy who can hold you accountable and provide social connection or support. Or, you might enjoy the solitary time to move your body each day. Either way, you can do any of the following exercises, which all boost mood and provide health benefits:
Learn more about the best types of exercise for depression.
4. Seek professional help
Some people find they can effectively manage their depression by leaning on their support systems and making lifestyle adjustments.
But if you find this isn’t enough to get you feeling better, you might be able to benefit from professional treatment methods, such as therapy or medication.
Working with a counselor or therapist can help you develop coping mechanisms and gain insight that can help prevent future depressive episodes. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which focuses on reshaping negative thoughts, can be very helpful for all people with depression, whether that be mild or severe, Feld says.
In fact, research has found that for people with depression, CBT can help improve mood and cognition, build resilience, and develop positive coping mechanisms to stressors.
Antidepressant medication can also be an effective part of treatment, depending on the person’s needs. Some people with more mild depression may find that lifestyle modifications and therapy are enough to adequately manage their symptoms, but those with more severe cases may need medication.
“Often, if somebody’s depression is severe and doesn’t allow them to actively participate in therapy, medication can be incredibly helpful to take the edge off and give them enough energy to be fully present in therapy and apply what they learn,” Maisel says.
Out of 100 adults with moderate to severe depression, 40 to 60 of them experience improved symptoms within six to eight weeks of taking an antidepressant. The American Psychiatric Association recommends both therapy and medication to treat depression, as both options combined are, on average, more effective than each alone.
If you think you may be depressed, the first step is reaching out to your health care provider. Many people start with their primary care physician, and depending on the severity of their symptoms, the doctor may refer you to a mental health professional, like a therapist.
If you’re interested in finding a therapist, our colleagues at Insider Reviews have put together a list of the best online therapy providers.
It’s important to remember that depression doesn’t define you, Feld says. Depression is a common mental illness that can be treated, so make sure to take care of your health and reach out for support. You aren’t alone, and you can find the help you need to deal with depression.
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