This is the second in a series of posts about depression. You can read “Understanding Depression: A Woe That Is Wisdom” here.
If you grapple with periods of depression, then you know that one of the most insidious symptoms of this often persistent mood-disorder is the feeling of being isolated. At such lonely times it can be difficult to remember that we are not alone in our suffering. According to The World Health Organization, about 121 million people worldwide suffer from depression. In this country, one in six individuals will experience some degree of depression or chronic anxiety sometime in their lives.
Depression can take on different appearances at different times—symptoms may include sleep or appetite disturbances, chronic fatigue, aches and pains, problems with concentration, learning difficulties, mood swings including irritability, hopelessness, worry, worthlessness and withdrawal, or depression may present as problems with substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors.
Those of us who are sensitive, creative types may be vulnerable to bouts of depression throughout our lives. Many creators live with a less severe type of chronic depression called dysthymia—leaving us still capable of functioning, but robbing us of joy and those all-important feelings of well-being. One thing is certain, vulnerability to clinical depression increases among older adults who feel burdened by relentless responsibility, who face an uncertain financial future, or who have been diagnosed with a chronic illness.
If you suffer from severe, persistent sadness or lethargy, prescription medication can correct chemical imbalances. But biochemical solutions to the problem of depression are rarely enough. I find that a judicious regime of self-care is essential for protecting my own mental health.
- Come out of denial. If depression runs in your family chances are you are also at risk. Recognizing that you could be depressed is the first step toward feeling better.
- Release judgment. True clinical depression is an illness not a character defect.
- Get a check-up. Depression may be a symptom of another medical problem such as heart disease, low thyroid, or other hormonal imbalances.
- Move your body. This is the number one sure-fire way to lift the fog of depression naturally. Exercise releases endorphins, nature’s own mood elevator. Get your heart rate up for thirty minutes or more and feelings of well-being will stay with you for hours afterwards.
- Eat well and eat regularly. Increase your brain’s serotonin levels by eating a lean high protein diet, including healthy fats. Keep blood sugar levels stable to reduce mood swings. Did you know that caffeine reduces serotonin levels?
- Get enough sun every day. Even as little as fifteen minutes a day will make a difference. If you live in a wooded area, consider moving to a location that lets in abundant natural light. Or invest in a light box.
- Get back to nature. Whether you take a vigorous hike, a gentle walk, or simply kick off your shoes, and wiggle your toes in the sand, spending time in the natural world helps clear your head, lift your spirits, and keeps you focused in the present moment.
- Don’t do too much or too little. Feeling overwhelmed by too many responsibilities—or the opposite—not feeling meaningfully engaged by life, can trigger depression. Discover your optimal range and then aim to live your life within that balance. It’s not always easy: You may need to disappoint people, but your mental and emotional well-being depends on your willingness to set boundaries.
- Create something. Write, draw, paint, dance, make music. Even if you think you don’t have a creative bone in your body, you will feel more alive while channeling your feelings into some form of self-expression.
- Get real. It’s depressing to pretend to be something you’re not. Start living a more authentic existence at home and at work and you will feel happier. Sure, it feels scary to take new risks to change your circumstances, but fear is a sign that you’re coming alive—and out of the fog of depression.
- Dive deeper. Circumstantial depression can be a sign you need to examine your life. Does your job require you to compromise your integrity every day? Have you been unable to admit that you need to end your marriage? Are you feeling lonely or spiritually disconnected? Are you suffering from creative blocks? Is your body failing you? Are you facing a financial crisis? Be honest with yourself about what might be off-kilter in your life; make an effort to get to the root of why you might be feeling depressed.
- Discover spirit. When the people in your life can’t be there for you, try not to take it personally. Even if they do love you, they may not be very good at staying present with their own feelings, let alone yours. That’s where faith comes in to fill the gap. This is not about religion, it’s about becoming aware on a whole new level. With practice, you can connect with an energetic presence that fills the universe with love.
- Develop a relaxation practice. Whether it’s meditation, guided imagery, soaking in a hot bath, taking a mid-day nap, pruning the roses, doing the crossword, playing solitaire, or tossing the football around with your kids, find something that lightens the load of the day.
- Don’t succumb to the tyranny of optimists. Our don’t-worry-be-happy culture promotes happiness as the optimal state-of-being. But there’s a good deal of richness to be derived from living a life connected to a full range of human emotional states, including depression.
- Strengthen life skills and gain new perspectives. Seek out counseling or coaching or join a support group to develop your ability to thrive in a wider range of emotional waters.
- Pamper yourself. Treat yourself to a massage, a facial, a manicure or a pedicure. Doing something nice for yourself lets you know you’re loved. Just make sure your choice doesn’t leave you feeling guilty, ashamed, or hung-over. Once the high wears off, you’ll only feel more depressed.
- Stay connected. This one is especially hard if you’re an introvert, but try to maintain a routine of staying in touch with one or two close friends or a trusted family member even when you don’t feel up to it.
- Practice self-compassion. The problem of depression resists simple solutions. You can’t necessarily “shift your thoughts” or “make a choice to be happy” as many self-help books advise. We’re encouraged to hide our deep levels of pain so it seems as if others don’t struggle the way we do. The truth is that life is difficult and you’re doing the best you can. Credit yourself for making small changes and resist the urge to pressure yourself to act when what you really need to do is rest.
- Be sensitive to your own rhythms. Discover strategies for managing depression that work best for you. Sometimes giving yourself a little push out the door to engage the world can help shift a blue mood. But other times, you may need to take a mental health day. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just need to stay home in my jammies, wrap myself in a blanket, and binge-watch The Good Wife.
Want to feel more alive and engaged?
Let me support you in developing successful practices for self-care and creative fulfillment. Contact me to find out more about my process-oriented approach to healing emotional wounds that frequently lie at the heart of depression. Read related post: Understanding Depression: A Woe That Is Wisdom.