Coping with depression

To start, two important warnings:

1. These suggestions are not intended as a substitute for medical advice or clinical intervention. In particular, they are not meant to treat severe depression. If you are severely depressed and have not gotten treatment from a professional, get treatment. Do this now and come back to this page later.

2. These are practices that have worked for me. I can't say for sure whether they would work for you, and they will probably need adjusting to your specific circumstances in any case. I cannot offer any guarantees.

Basic lifestyle stuff

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. These may provide temporary relief, but ultimately result in long-term aggravation of the depression. If you can, stop caffeine usage too — the lift today produces the exhaustion and bummer tomorrow. Seriously. I didn't get relief from daily lows until I cut out caffeine entirely.
  • Get enough sleep. Most Americans don't understand just how debilitating sleep deprivation can be.
  • Very importantly, get regular exercise. Not overexertion, just simple exercise such as walking to work, going for a bicycle ride, whatever. It helps a lot.
  • Stress reduction

    Depression is appallingly stressful. Reducing stress is both symptomatic treatment (i.e. it makes you feel better) and also ameliorative (it helps treat the underlying illness).

    See if any of the following work for you in reducing stress:

  • hobbies
  • meditation
  • yoga
  • yogic breath exercises (follow this link for an effective breathing exercise to reduce stress)
  • t'ai chi ch'uan (which is also good exercise).
  • Self and others

    Keep busy (unless the only way to do this requires you to do a lot of stuff you hate). Stay socially involved with people. Sitting around and brooding all day is likely to make things worse rather than better.

    General attitudes and specific strategies

    · Give your strategies a chance to work. Some of these lifestyle changes may seem too dull for words. (I'm 38, and I sometimes think I live like a 70-year-old invalid.) But they're worth trying (for a while, anyway) to see if they produce any results. Try to expand your tolerance for the hokey-but-useful.

    · Aim for stability and calm (at first). My suggestions are not intended to produce thrills; the idea is get to an initial base of calm. This will provide opportunities to happiness to develop.

    · If there are any obvious triggers that make the depression worse, stay away from them as much as is humanly possible. It took me months to figure this out and let it sink in. I kept telling myself "I should be able to handle this." But there ain't no "should." I finally had to face up to what my mental condition actually is, rather than what I think it should be. Things improved pretty quickly for me after I dealt with this.

    · Learn to deal with boredom and loneliness in productive ways. This is where meditation (or t'ai chi) can be really useful. Few things are more inherently boring and lonely than sitting alone and paying attention to your breath. But practiced steadily, meditation will eventually help you train yourself to let these emotions rise and then naturally subside, leaving behind a steady and unperturbed state of mind.

    · Similarly, learn to deal with upsetting or despairing thoughts in a productive way. Meditation can help deal with these, too: it trains you to observe such thoughts as they arise, acknowledge that they exist, and then turn your awareness to the other thoughts that arise in their wake, rather than allowing the initial thoughts to drag you further down into a state of misery.

    · If very upsetting thoughts arise, try to relax for a minute and then allow the present situation to occupy your attention. For example, if you're worried about some hypothetical future situation, it may help to remind yourself that you're not going through that situation now, and that the present situation is one which you can handle. Also, it may help to try to notice the physical component of worries or unhappiness. How do your emotions feel, physically? (A ball of stress in the stomach? Tension in your muscles?) Acknowledging the physical sources of unhappiness can help combat the common tendency to first feel bad and then go looking for a reason why. Maybe there is no reason other than the physical symptoms of stress. (And the physical symptoms can be dealt with using yoga or exercise.)

    · A friend from PeoplesForum who goes by the name "Chungking Express" suggests the following additional concern:

    Happiness is the goal, of course, but be careful of sudden emotional highs — often, if you start to feel un-depressed, that fact alone will make you even happier, resulting in an upward emotional spiral. This feels great, of course, but the problem is that it's not grounded in reality. So, when reality reasserts itself, you will go through an emotional crash and could end up feeling even worse than you did before. (This is not the same as bipolar disorder, incidentally.)
    I think he's right about this, based on my own experience.

    · Recognize what you can control, and what you can't; take action to deal with the stuff you can control, and resolve not to worry about the other stuff — by which I mean, be prepared to deal with likely contingencies, but don't obsess over them. Let outside events come as they will. Since you have to do this anyway, there's no point in frustrating yourself by fretting over the uncontrollable. (This is basically what the "Serenity Prayer" says. Oh, well. I'll find help wherever I can. See my earlier remark about tolerance for hokum.)

    · Be patient with yourself. Be at least as patient as you would be with a loved one, and preferably more so. Remember that you're ultimately not answerable to anyone else's expectations. Your life is your own, and there's no reason to set your standards so high that you're bound to make yourself miserable trying to meet them. Getting through each day with a modicum of self-respect and compassion for others is quite good enough, and more than a lot of people manage.

    Those are my thoughts. I hope some of them work for you. They've worked pretty well for me.

    Good luck!