Depression drains your energy, hope, and drive, making it difficult to do what you need to feel better. But while overcoming depression isn’t quick or easy, it’s far from impossible. Despite what you may hear from friends or family, depression is not something that you can simply ‘snap out of’. That is the difference between simply feeling sad, and suffering depression. Although, you do have more control than you realise. Even if depression is severe and stubbornly persistent, you can take steps to overcome it. The key is to start with small, manageable tasks and build from there. It’s called ‘eating the elephant, one bite at a time’. Feeling better takes time, but you will get there. All you need to do is make small, positive choices for yourself each day.
What you can do
- Reach out and stay connected to supportive people
- Do things that make you feel good—even when you don’t feel like it
- Move vigorously during the day—don’t sit for more than an hour
- Get a daily dose of sunlight
- Challenge negative thinking—that’s the depression talking
- Know that you alone, and that many people suffer from depression
What is the best way to cope with depression?
Recovering from depression requires action, but taking action when you’re depressed is hard. It often feels like having the flu—you are tired and withdrawn, and may simply want to curl up and do nothing. Draw upon whatever resources you have. You may not have much energy, but you probably have enough to take a short walk around the block or pick up the phone to call a loved one. The tips that follow are based on a comprehensive approach that helps you get support while making lifestyle changes and reversing negative thinking. If you continue to take positive steps day by day, you’ll soon find yourself feeling better.
Tip 1: Reach out and stay connected
When you’re depressed, the tendency is to withdraw and isolate. Even reaching out to close family members and friends can be tough. Compound that with the feelings of shame and the guilt you may feel at neglecting your relationships.
However, social support is absolutely essential to depression recovery. Staying connected to other people and the outside world will make a world of difference to your mood and outlook. If you don’t feel that you have anyone to turn to, it’s never too late to build new friendships and improve your support network.
Ways to reach out
Look for support from people who make you feel safe and cared for. The person you talk to doesn’t have to be able to fix you, he or she just needs to be a good listener and someone who’ll listen attentively and compassionately, without being distracted or judging you.
Make face-time a priority. Phone calls, social media, and texting are great ways to stay in touch, but they don’t replace good old-fashioned, in-person quality time. The simple act of talking to someone face-to-face about how you feel can play a big role in lifting the fog of depression and keeping it away.
Try to keep up with social activities even if you don’t feel like it. Often when you’re depressed, it feels more comfortable to retreat into your shell, but being around other people will make you feel less depressed.
Find ways to support others. It’s nice to receive support, but research shows you get an even bigger mood boost from providing support yourself. So, find ways both big and small to help others, like volunteering, being a listening ear for a friend, or doing something nice for somebody.
Care for a pet. While nothing can replace the human connection, pets can bring joy and companionship into your life and help you feel less isolated. Caring for a pet can also get you outside of yourself and give you a sense of being needed. Taking a pet for a walk is also a great reason to get out and about, and stay active.
Do one thing each day. Overcoming depression can seem like an overwhelming task, when you feel exhausted and low. When you are having your darkest days, it may even seem impossible to get out of bed. This can make you feel ever worse, as you feel guilt and shame at having achieved nothing. Give yourself a break, and be ok with the idea that you may only get one positive thing done that day. Pick anything that makes you feel good, or perhaps a job around the house that needs to be done, and just make sure that you get that one thing done today. It may be doing the dishes, or taking the dog for a walk, or simply getting out of bed! Keeping a diary of your ‘one thing’ each day, can help you to set goals, and give yourself a pat on the back when you’ve achieved your objective for that day.
10 tips for reaching out and staying connected
- Talk to one person about your feelings
- Help someone else by volunteering
- Have lunch or coffee with a friend
- Ask a loved one to check in with you regularly
- Accompany someone to the movies, a concert, or a small get together
- Call or email an old friend
- Go for a walk with a workout buddy
- Schedule a weekly dinner date
- Meet new people by taking a class or joining a club
- Do a least ‘one thing’ on your darkest days
Tip 2: Do things that make you feel good
In order to overcome depression, you have to do things that relax and energise you. This includes following a healthy lifestyle, learning how to better manage stress, setting limits on what you’re able to do, and scheduling fun activities into your day.
Do things you enjoy (or used to)!
While you can’t force yourself to have fun or experience pleasure, you can push yourself to do things, even when you don’t feel like it. You might be surprised at how much better you feel once you’re out in the world. Even if your depression doesn’t lift immediately, you’ll gradually feel more upbeat and energetic as you make time for fun activities.
- Pick up a former hobby or a sport you used to like.
- Express yourself creatively through music, art, or writing
- Go out with friends
- Take a day trip to somewhere
- Support your health
Aim for eight hours of sleep. Depression typically involves sleep problems; whether you’re sleeping too little or too much, your mood suffers. Get on a better sleep schedule by learning healthy sleep habits.
Expose yourself to a little sunlight every day. Lack of sunlight can make depression worse. Take a short walk outdoors, have your coffee outside, enjoy an al fresco meal, people-watch on a park bench, or sit out in the garden. Aim for at least 15 minutes of sunlight a day to boost your mood. If you live somewhere with very little winter sunshine, try using a light therapy box.
Practice relaxation techniques. A daily relaxation practice can help relieve symptoms of depression, reduce stress, and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try Mindfulness.
Develop a “wellness toolbox” to deal with depression
Come up with a list of things that you can do for a quick mood boost. The more “tools” for coping with depression, the better. Try and implement a few of these ideas each day, even if you’re feeling good.
- Spend some time in nature
- List what you like about yourself
- Read a good book
- Watch a funny movie or TV show
- Take a long, hot bath
- Take care of a few small tasks
- Play with a pet
- Talk to friends or family face-to-face
- Listen to music
- Do something spontaneous
Tip 3: Move vigorously during the day
When you’re depressed, just getting out of bed can seem like a daunting task, let alone working out! But exercise is a powerful depression fighter—and one of the most important tools in your recovery arsenal. Research shows that regular exercise can be as effective as medication for relieving depression symptoms. It also helps prevent relapse once you’re well.
To get the most benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise per day. This doesn’t have to be all at once and it’s okay to start small. A 10-minute walk can improve your mood for two hours.
Exercise is something you can do right now to boost your mood. It will help the body and the mind!
Your fitness will improve if you stick with it. Starting to exercise can be difficult when you’re depressed and exhausted. But research shows that your energy levels will improve if you keep with it. You will be less fatigued, not more, once it’s part of your routine.
Find exercises that are continuous and rhythmic. The most benefits for depression come from rhythmic exercise such as walking, weight training, swimming, martial arts, or dancing—where you move both your arms and legs.
If you’re not keen on going outside, you can exercise in the house too – even when watching TV! Try walking laps around your living room, or pumping some weights with water bottles instead of dumbbells. You can even do some yoga stretches while watching your favourite TV show – as long as you are moving.
Add a mindfulness element, especially if your depression is rooted in unresolved trauma or fed by obsessive, negative thoughts. Focus on how your body feels as you move such as the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, or the feeling of the wind on your skin, or the rhythm of your breathing.
Tip 4: Eat a healthy, mood-boosting diet
What you eat has a direct impact on the way you feel. Reduce your intake of foods that can adversely affect your brain and mood, such as caffeine, alcohol, trans fats, and foods with high levels of chemical preservatives or hormones (such as certain meats).
Don’t skip meals. Going too long between meals can make you feel irritable and tired, so aim to eat something at least every three to four hours.
Minimize sugar and refined carbs. You may crave sugary snacks, baked goods, or comfort foods such as pasta or French fries, but these ‘feel-good foods quickly lead to a crash in mood and energy. Aim to cut out as much of these foods as possible.
Boost your B vitamins. Deficiencies in B vitamins such as folic acid and B-12 can trigger depression. To get more, take a B-complex vitamin supplement or eat more citrus fruit, leafy greens, beans, chicken, and eggs.
Omega-3 fatty acids play an essential role in stabilizing mood
Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats called EPA and DHA can give your mood a big boost. The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, tuna, and some cold-water fish oil supplements. Aim for two servings a week. See: Choosing Healthy Fats
The hardest part about eating healthy foods is preparation. If you find yourself hungry, with nothing to hand, you are likely to choose unhealthy and ‘fast’ options. Have a think about where you’re going to be tomorrow, and prepare your healthy meals and snacks in advance if possible. You might like to carry a zip-lock bag of sliced carrots for a quick snack, if you are out and about, for example.
Tip 5: Get a daily dose of sunlight
Sunlight can help boost serotonin levels and improve your mood. Whenever possible, get outside during daylight hours and expose yourself to the sun. Aim for at least 15 minutes of sunlight a day. Remove sunglasses (but never stare directly at the sun) and use sunscreen as needed.
Take a walk on your lunch break, have your coffee outside, enjoy an al fresco meal, or spend time gardening.
Double up on the benefits of sunlight by exercising outside. Try hiking, walking in a local park, or playing golf or tennis with a friend.
Increase the amount of natural light in your home and workplace by opening blinds and drapes and sitting near windows.
Tip 6: Challenge negative thinking
Do you feel like you’re powerless or weak? That bad things happen and there’s not much you can do about it? That your situation is hopeless? Depression puts a negative spin on everything, including the way you see yourself and your expectations for the future.
When these types of thoughts overwhelm you, it’s important to remind yourself that this is the depression talking. These irrational, pessimistic attitudes—known as cognitive distortions—aren’t realistic. When you really examine them they don’t hold up. But even so, they can be tough to give up. Just telling yourself to ‘think positive’ won’t cut it. Often, they’re part of a lifelong pattern of thinking that’s become so automatic, you’re not even completely aware of it.
Negative, unrealistic ways of thinking that fuel depression
All-or-nothing thinking – Looking at things in black-or-white categories, with no middle ground (“If I fall short of perfection, I’m a total failure.”)
Overgeneralisation – Generalising from a single negative experience, expecting it to hold true forever (“I can’t do anything right.”)
The mental filter – Ignoring positive events and focusing on the negative. Noticing the one thing that went wrong, rather than all the things that went right.
Diminishing the positive – Coming up with reasons why positive events don’t count (“She said she had a good time on our date, but I think she was just being nice.”)
Jumping to conclusions – Making negative interpretations without actual evidence. You act like a mind reader (“He must think I’m pathetic”) or a fortune teller (“I’ll be stuck in this dead-end job forever.”)
Emotional reasoning – Believing that the way you feel reflects reality (“I feel like such a loser. I really am no good!”)
Shoulds and should-nots – Holding yourself to a strict list of what you should and shouldn’t do, and beating yourself up if you don’t live up to your rules.
Labelling – Labelling yourself based on mistakes and perceived shortcomings (“I’m a failure; an idiot; a loser.”)
Put your thoughts on the witness stand
Once you identify the destructive thoughts patterns that you default to, you can start to challenge them with questions such as:
- What’s the evidence that this thought is true? Not true?
- What would I tell a friend who had this thought?
- Is there another way of looking at the situation or an alternate explanation?
- How might I look at this situation if I didn’t have depression?
As you cross-examine your negative thoughts, you may be surprised at how quickly they crumble. In the process, you’ll develop a more balanced perspective.
When to get professional help
If you’ve taken self-help steps and made positive lifestyle changes and still find your depression getting worse, seek professional help. Needing additional help doesn’t mean you’re weak. Sometimes the negative thinking in depression can make you feel like you’re a lost cause, but depression can be treated and you can feel better!
Don’t forget about these self-help tips, though. Even if you’re receiving professional help, these tips can be part of your treatment plan, speeding your recovery and preventing depression from returning.
Choose a therapist who suits your needs. If you begin to see a counsellor or psychologist who does not make you feel comfortable, unjudged, and at ease, you are allowed to go elsewhere. It is important to find a therapist who suits your needs, and that is not necessarily the first one you visit. This does not mean that your therapist isn’t good at what they do, but simply may not be the right one for you.