Feeling down from time to time is part of being human, but depression goes beyond the typical sadness we feel when life brings struggles. According to the American Psychiatric Association, depression is a medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. It can interfere with your ability to work, study, eat, sleep, and enjoy life.
It is common worldwide and symptoms can range in intensity from mild to severe. Depression can lead to death by suicide, which is the second leading cause of death in 15 to 29-year-olds (World Health Organization). A combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and social factors plays a role in depression.
Depression can look different from person to person, but there are some common signs and symptoms, like these below. Note that this list should not be used to diagnose depression.
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness (there is a sense that nothing will ever get better, or that there is nothing you can do to make things better)
- Feelings of worthlessness or extreme guilt
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue (even small tasks feel overwhelming)
- Experiencing restlessness, agitation, irritability, or anger
- Appetite or weight changes unrelated to dieting
- Sleep changes
- Difficulty focusing, concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions
- Unexplained aches and pains like headaches, muscle pain, or digestive problems
- Reckless behavior (substance use, gambling, reckless driving, etc.)
- Thoughts of death and/or suicide
Depression can feel overwhelming, but it is important to remember that it is treatable. Below are some positive steps you can take toward feeling better. Identify what strategies work for you so you can put them into action when your depression becomes overwhelming.
Reach out to supportive friends or family
When we are depressed, we tend to want to withdraw and isolate from others, but getting support is a crucial step in helping yourself when you are depressed. Helpguide.org says, “Reaching out is not a sign of weakness and it won’t mean you’re a burden to others. Your loved ones care about you and want to help.” It’s important that you reach out to those who can listen compassionately and without judgment.
Know your limits
Say “No” to yourself. When we are depressed even small tasks can feel daunting. Prioritize tasks each day/week so when depression kicks in, you know what matters most and you can put aside those non-essential tasks.
Say “No” to others. When we have a lot on our plate, adding one more thing can bring us to our breaking point. Listen to Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, PhD provide some tips on saying “No” without feeling guilty. There is only so much of ourselves we can give and it’s important that the things we agree to participate in align with our values.
Create small, realistic goals
Successes build on each other. Accomplishing goals, even small ones, builds confidence and motivates you to keep going. Take big, overwhelming projects and make them small by breaking them up.
Re-imagine what “success” means
We have an idea in our minds of what success looks like and we often judge ourselves when we believe we are falling short. We get caught up in thoughts like, “Once I start my career, I will be successful and happy.” Although goals can help motivate us, it’s important to remember that success is about the learning that happens along the way, not necessarily about the end result.
Focus on your health
Eat a healthy diet. Know your body and how foods contribute to your emotions. In general, reducing refined sugars, caffeine, and alcohol helps. Read this article from Harvard Health to learn more about how depression is linked to eating.
Stay active. It’s difficult to get motivated to exercise when you have depression because it drains your energy. Research shows that exercise helps areas in the brain that help to regulate mood, and releases brain chemicals that improve mood. Read more about exercise and depression in this helpguide.org article. Remember that you don’t have to run a marathon, start with a 10-minute walk and build from there.
Make connections with the world around you
Staying connected with the outside world combats the tendency for isolation that depression brings. Some things you can do to stay connected include; volunteering, caring for a pet, joining a club or organization, going for a walk with a friend, etc.
Practice relaxation techniques
Know what “in the moment” relaxation behaviors help you most and practice them regularly (even when you’re not depressed) to reap their preventative benefits, and so that it comes natural for you to use them when things are tough. Here are some common ones that may work for you:
- Take a walk
- Soak up some sun
- Practice deep breathing
- Try progressive muscle relaxation (View a video that takes you through the process)
Practice mindfulness and self-compassion exercises
Mindfulness is being fully present in the moment, being aware of what’s going on around you or inside you and doing so without judgment. As NPR reports, meditation is a mindfulness practice that has been shown to help people manage depression. Like mindfulness, self-compassion has also been shown to help people who are struggling with depression. Self-compassion involves three components: mindfulness of your experience of suffering, acknowledgement that you are not alone in your suffering, and kindness to yourself simply because you are suffering.
Try this 5-minute video, this 25-minute video by COD counselor, Dr. Dennis Emano, or participate in COD’s free, live guided mindfulness meditation on COD's Facebook page.
There are many websites that include free mindfulness videos, audios, and scripts, like these:
Avoid “should” statements
We tend to tell ourselves all of the things we “should” do throughout the day or in our lives. You’ve probably said to yourself, “I should be studying for that test” or, “I should be a better son.” Although we tend to use them to motivate ourselves, they usually do the opposite, bringing about shame. You can see how they implicitly tell you that something is wrong with you for not doing those things. They also tend to be general, making it difficult to take action. Instead, try finding a specific behavior and connecting it to one of your values. For example, I “should” be studying may connect to the value of intelligence or work ethic. I “should” be a better son connects to the value of family or relationships. Now, you can say to yourself, “It’s important to me to study because I value intelligence," or “It’s important to me to call my mom because I value family.”
Use coping statements
Talk yourself through difficult moments. Some examples include:
- I can do hard things.
- Thoughts are just thoughts. They are not necessarily true or factual.
- I’ve felt this way before and I’ve made it through.
- I can be anxious/angry/sad and still deal with this.
- I can feel bad and still choose to take a new and healthy direction.
- I can ask for help when I need it.
- It’s okay to feel the way I do.
Don't try to control the uncontrollable, practice acceptance
Acceptance means merely accepting the state of things as they are, without working to change them. Without acceptance, we tend to put much of our energy into trying to change or fix things. We may criticize ourselves when we fail, leading to feelings of worthlessness. When we understand that some things are simply out of our control, the pressure to fix things subsides. Then, we can move forward onto things we can influence. We no longer need to feel responsible to change the situation and we don’t need to experience the distress that comes with it.
Being open about your thoughts and feeling through writing can help put things in perspective. The intensity of our emotions can cloud our ability to see things clearly and writing things out can give us a sense of control. Consistently writing about your thoughts and feelings can help you recognize patterns and identify triggers to your depressive symptoms. You also may be able to notice any progress you’ve made over time. Check out positivepsychology.com for more information on journaling, including research on its benefits and tips on how best to do it
Don’t be your own worst critic
Although we are often compassionate with others, we are much harder and more critical with ourselves. We all make mistakes. It’s what makes us human. Next time you make a mistake, consider your inner dialog and see how you can motivate yourself with kindness and support rather than with critiques. Also, try to separate your mistakes or behavior from who you are as a person. Realize that mistakes or personal shortcomings don’t define you.
Kristen Kneff is an Associate Professor Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin states, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.” Visit self-compassion.org to learn more about self-compassion and practice self-compassion exercises and meditations.
Focus on balance
One common piece of advice you may hear is to “just be positive.” Rather, work toward balancing negative self-talk with rational, objective thoughts. Observe thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to push them away. Remember that all emotions are valid. Emotions are not “good” or “bad.” “Just be positive” tells people to cast aside difficult or painful emotions and then adds shame for feeling them in the first place. Make room for all of your emotions. They are information for you to use as you make decisions moving forward.
Take a free, anonymous, online survey for depression by clicking on the “take a survey” button and then select “feeling sad, down, or empty.”
- Helpguide's Depression Article
If you’ve taken some of the above steps and are still struggling or find that your feelings worse, consider seeking professional help. Counseling is confidential and you can take it at your own pace. Some people think it is weak to seek counseling, in fact, it often means one is wise for utilizing and available resources it is a sign of strength to know when you need help and to ask for it.
Suicide is a serious symptom of depression. If you are feeling suicidal contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for free and confidential crisis support 24/7.
- Ask your healthcare provider for a referral
- Contact the customer service number for your health insurance provider