Working Through Depression: Symptoms & Antidotes
Michele Dial, M.Ed, LPC
When people share their experiences with depression with me, the most common theme I hear is a sense of feeling “heavy,” as though they are carrying a ginormous weight on their shoulders. Another visual often shared is a feeling of walking through knee-deep mud. That ubiquitous experience of heaviness is the proverbial shot in the foot that often interferes with a person’s ability to recover from depression.
If you or someone you love battles depression, you may be looking at the title of this article and thinking, “Yeah, right. That’s not happening. You just have to wait for it to pass.” That’s the tricky thing about depression – while it zaps one’s energy, motivation, and even any desire to make a change, doing the work is the most effective way to get through depression. And I do mean “through.” Avoiding or stuffing won’t work. Depression is a relentless beast. And it requires a formidable foe to take it down. And that’s you. No one can do it for you.
Whether you are dealing with major depressive disorder or one its cousins, such as seasonal, situational or postpartum depression, or bipolar disorder, knowing your symptoms and how to address them can give you a major advantage. Take look at this list of symptoms and see how many feel familiar.
Decreased Energy / Fatigue
Lack of Motivation
Changes in Appetite
Lack of Interest or Enthusiasm
Inability to Experience Pleasure
Irregular Sleep (Too much or too little)
Thoughts of Death or Dying
If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s no wonder working your way through depression feels daunting and out of reach. The key is to take small steps rather than trying to tackle major changes. If even the smallest steps feel impossible, or if you are consumed with thought of dying, it is critical to seek the help of a psychiatrist right away. You may need antidepressant medication in the short term to help you lift the cloud of depression enough to want to stay alive and engage in activities that will help you heal.
A Multifaceted Approach
Depression often responds well to a combination of medication and behavioral treatments. While either component offers benefits independent of the other, together, they form a powerhouse that can help you regain your sense of balance and wellbeing.
Antidepressant medication is a common form of treatment for depression. Since depression is a biological alteration in brain chemistry, it may make sense to approach the chemical imbalance with medication to recalibrate the pathways in the brain. If you prefer not to use medication, talk to your psychiatrist or a qualified mental health professional to determine if you are safe without it.
In my humble opinion, exercise is the most important and effective of all the behavioral antidotes, hands down. Why? Several reasons. For starters, moving your body actually has the ability to recalibrate your brain pathways in much the same way medication does. Increased heart rate pumps more oxygen into the brain, which helps preserve your current brain cells, and spurs on the growth of new ones, as well as the connectors that link them to each other. Exercise also stimulates the increase in several natural mood boosters, including endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.
A third benefit of exercise is the inherent domino effect. It contributes to more regular and restful sleep, which is another key factor in fighting depression. And when our bodies feel good, we often get inspired to feed them nutritious food to keep them healthy and running smoothly.
Don’t be intimidated by fitness level, time constraints, and hour-long gym classes. If the idea of exercise sounds overwhelming, take a few deep breaths and stick with me. We’re not training for a marathon here (although goals can be motivating!). All you need right now is to start moving. Baby steps. Try doing 5 minutes of stretching and jumping jacks at home or go for a walk around your block each morning. You can also take the stairs at work or walk around the outside of your building in the middle of your day. The key is just getting started. This is not a competition with yourself or anyone else. Remember – fitness is a secondary benefit, but it’s not the main goal. The number one priority is movement for sake of enhancing body chemistry and improving your mood.
Several foods are known culprits of depressed mood. Foods high in refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, sodium, caffeine, and alcohol can have a major impact on your depression, and not in a good way. These types of foods can sometimes provide a temporary boost, but are often followed by a crash that leaves you feeling sluggish and lethargic, often deepening depression in the long run. Check out this article for the science on the potential effects of eating certain foods. By contrast, nutritious meals and snacks work with your body’s chemistry to naturally boost your mood and energy level, which is more sustainable.
Don’t be intimidated by special diets that require extensive planning, weighing, counting, and prep. You just need to make smart choices when deciding what to eat. One way to identify what’s healthy and what’s not is to imagine yourself living on a farm. What foods can you raise or grow? Think vegetables, fruits, and unprocessed meats and grains. A good balance of a variety of foods is important to maintain good levels of nutrients in your body.
Lack of sleep and too much sleep can often have similar outcomes. Dysregulated sleep typically leaves a person feeling slow, foggy, and irritable. Make an effort to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to help your internal clock get regulated. To make going to bed a little easier, try creating a nightly routine that you find soothing and relaxing, while cutting out all or most forms of stimulation at least a few hours before bed. If you have children, you know how effective routines can be. Yours may include a warm shower or bath, listening to soothing music, reading a book (not electronic), stretching, meditating, or snuggling with a loved one (person or pet). If you’ve exercised earlier in the day, you will likely feel less stressed and more tired for bedtime than on the days that you don't exercise.
Don’t be intimidated by ticking clocks and the number of hours you wish you could sleep. Your body can adjust to its new routine given time and practice. Do you best to create a relaxing environment, cap it off with some chamomile tea or warm milk, and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t fall asleep at the intended time. The idea is to relax and remain calm so that you can fall asleep peacefully.
Your feelings are real and they carry valuable messages about your experiences. It’s your job to acknowledge them and try to determine what message they are sending. Journaling provides a pathway for this type of discovery. Often, once we start putting our thoughts on paper, they just keep flowing. Journaling provides an outlet for feelings we may not have noticed or would never express verbally, and can often lead to areas of clarity that we couldn’t see before.
Don’t be intimidated by grammar, spelling, neatness, or writing ability. We’re not trying to get published here. Journaling is a form of expression and a path to healing that is most effective when we engage in it without judgment.
Isolation is a major symptom of depression, and it creates a vicious cycle by feeding the loneliness that typically accompanies depression. Engaging with friends, family, and even strangers (i.e. church, school, the gym) is a must. I know you don’t feel like talking to anyone. I know you want to stay home and be by yourself. It’s a natural drive with depression. But it won’t make you feel better. That’s a lie that depression wants us to believe. But isolation will only perpetuate and deepen your depression.
We are humans built for connection with other humans. Studies have shown for decades that people cannot survive without human contact. Surround yourself with people, especially the ones who are a positive presence in your life. Have dinner, got to game night, watch a movie, play miniature golf, go bowling. Connection is the first priority. Fun is a close second.
Don’t be intimidated by shyness or social anxiety. Recognize it, then push through it and connect with others. And don’t be intimidated by feeling like a burden. Remember that people care about you, even when you’re struggling to care about anything. And if you feel it’s just too difficult to talk with people around you, talk to a therapist – an objective individual who will listen and support you without judgment.
Prayer, meditation, communing with nature. Spirituality is whatever we deem meaningful to the soul. Figure out what feeds your spirit, what fills you up, and pursue it with as much vigor as you can muster. If you’re unsure, look back at times in your life when you felt fulfilled and at peace, and think about what you were doing at that time. For some, it may be a connection with a higher power. For others, being immersed in nature.
Some people find purpose and meaning in serving others, which shifts our focus to their needs instead of our own. Working side-by-side with people who share a common goal to serve those in need adds a layer of connectedness that further boosts enrichment and purpose.
Some folks find hope and solace in gratitude practices. When you’re depressed, the good in your life can feel out of reach or non-existent. Take a few moments each day to intentionally seek out reasons to be grateful and write them down. You may be surprised by what comes to mind.
Don’t be intimidated by a specific religion, religious practices, or the beliefs of others. Find what is meaningful to you, what touches your soul, and make it a part of your daily routine.
Don’t go it alone. Depression is an ultra-isolating illness that will try to convince that you don’t need anyone, and maybe that you don’t deserve anyone. But you do. We all do. We are all worthy of respect and support, even when – especially when – we are not at our best. Make the call, and stick with it, even on the days when it feels like nothing is changing. It’s a slow process, but if you invest your time and effort, big changes can happen.
Don’t be intimidated by sharing your pain and your private self with a stranger. Start slow and take some time to get to know your therapist so that he or she feels more approachable and trustworthy. After a few sessions, if you don’t feel like you’re connecting with or feeling supported by your therapist, try a new one. This is not your opportunity to quit because you tried. It’s your opportunity to persevere until you find someone with whom you can work through this pain.
Overcoming depression can feel like a monumental task. Sheer grit and determination are often your best allies. The ruling mindset for fighting depression is to recognize the resistance and do it anyway. Choose any of these practices, acknowledge your resistance to engaging, and DO IT ANYWAY. It’s tough to get started, but little by little, the benefits will reinforce your efforts, and the tasks will become easier. Set small, attainable goals to start gaining successes. When you miss the mark – because sometimes you will – be kind to yourself. Be gentle and accepting, and keep going – it’s the only way you will get better.
You got this!