“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.” — Albert Camus
While completing my undergraduate studies in psychology, I assisted a former RCAF officer, now psychologist, with some surveys. He once told me of what his cold weather survival training in the air force taught him about coping. Officers were dropped in a remote area of northern Canada in the middle of winter with only basic gear and had to survive for several days. At temperatures of -30 to -40 Celsius this was not an easy task. He described how overwhelmed he felt on his first survival drop. As his ride departed, he experienced a deep sense of isolation; he checked the thermometer on his zipper gauge and saw it read -50 C. His was not able to think very rationally at this time but what did help was his that his training kicked in. Methodically he set about pre-learned routines: making a snow shelter, checking extremities for numbness and warming them, building a fire. Once he began to complete each step, positive momentum kept him from being lost in fear. In many ways, the same idea applies to dealing with serious depression.
When depressed, most people do not have the energy to do what they know is healthy for them. But by learning a few basic tips and having a guide like a therapist or a good friend to help you implement them, you can channel your energy into productive avenues and improve the probability of a faster recovery.
Basic Tips for Dealing with Depression:
- Keep a Journal: Depression can be all-consuming and debilitating. By focusing some of your reserves on processing feelings, writing about them for instance, you can shift your mood a little. Prayer, meditation, yoga, reading a favorite book or a passage from someone who has dealt with depression can help. Also, remember to breathe. Keep a routine of activities and small tasks that you can rely on.
- Connect with Others: The impulse to isolate occurs with depression. However, connecting to a network of friends, family, and professionals will generate more energy than it consumes. If you do not have a network, work on cultivating one. Check local public health or mental health centres for support groups and talk to a registered therapist. Working with a counselor provides access to a safe, confidential place to connect and process your feelings.
- Use Mindfulness: Mindfulness refers to the quality of focusing your awareness. Depression keeps you focused on depressive thoughts, self-criticism, shame, guilt, and hopelessness. Use mindfulness to see these thoughts and feelings as being like clouds in the sky—you cannot stop them but you can let them come and go as they will. Also, focus on what you are doing: breathing, walking, driving, sitting, breathing. See my Mindfulness article for more.
- Manage Your Thoughts: Depression often creates extremes, and one sees things in black or white. Such thinking errors are due to how the brain works: when depressed it conserves energy by shutting down some of the pre-frontal cortex functions, the part which allows you to see the grey areas. By seeing depressed thoughts for what they are, limited ways of seeing, you are already a little outside the mood. Cognitive behavioral therapy is especially useful here in noticing the doctored thoughts and focusing on more realistic ones. Remembering times when you faced difficult situations before and overcome them can also help identify more well-balanced thoughts.
- Eat Well: It is hard to eat well when depressed; many people overeat, under-eat, or eat prepared and fast foods. A few simple yet healthy foods can provide a mood boost and offer long-term energy and feel-good results. Suggestions include bananas, yoghurt, pasta and sauce, nuts or nut spread, sandwiches, fresh fruit and veggies. Try to avoid alcohol, drugs, sugary foods, fast foods, too much caffeine, and soda.If planning to cook or eat healthy feels overwhelming, create a simple list: Write the numbers 1, 2, and 3 and list four healthy foods you can eat for each of your 3 basic meals per day.
- Exercise: When depressed, exercise is often the last thing you may feel like doing but research has shown it can be as effective as antidepressant medication at helping you feel better. Creating easy-to-follow strategies is key to accessing the benefits of exercise. One good strategy is tied with Tip 2: Use your social network and ask a friend, relative, or group member to go for a walk, attend drop-in yoga, or hike a local trail. Walk-and-talk is a great way to meet the goals of connecting and exercising. Other strategies include taking the stairs instead of the elevator, taking your pet or a friend’s for a walk, walking while talking on the phone, and walking to get a few groceries.
- Sleep: Sleep is tied to the body’s physical and emotional recovery system, and is closely linked to your ability to deal with stress. Lack of sleep can induce or exacerbate depression. Most adults need at least 8 hours of good sleep each night but it is not uncommon for people dealing with depression to get half this amount, or to switch day and night. One common cause of not sleeping well is saving up your worries for bedtime. To work around this, use mindfulness to let worry thoughts go. I work with clients on creating effective sleep strategies. This includes creating a consistent wake-up time, getting some sunlight during the day, avoiding naps, and limiting caffeine.
- “Micro-Manage”: Tackle tasks in small steps. Think of a ladder—you cannot get to the top in one leap. Thinking you can out-think or power your way out of depression in one mighty bound is a set-up for guilt and shame. Instead, see progress as a series of small steps over time and focus on one step at a time. Doing so will give you satisfaction that you can deal with things as the small steps add up to success.
- Get the Help you Need: If you have self-harm thoughts and feel you might be at risk of carrying them out, find your local crisis centre number and call them immediately. They can help you stay safe and build the resources you need to cope. Even if you are not at your wits end, it can help to talk to a qualified therapist. Find someone who has training, experience, and skill in dealing with depression.
A basic plan for dealing with depression can help you turn an overwhelming situation into a manageable one. Tips like those described above can create positive momentum when the weight of depression seems crushing. Depression lifts through a series of small steps, until one day you notice you feel better. By focusing on the little things you can do each day you can contribute to feeling better sooner rather than later.