We've all had that dream. Something evil is in our room -- our bathrobe or lamp has transformed into a menacing being. We try to turn on the light, to scream, to run, to fight back. But we're paralyzed. Terror. Powerlessness. Defeat. Even if we knew a way out, we're trapped -- betrayed by our own mind.
This is what depression feels like. It chains us to our pain and locks us in the cellar, then calls down from the top of the stairs you're pathetic and bad things are gonna happen. We can't "snap out of it." We can't "think happy thoughts" or go for a run and watch the pain evaporate. It's visceral. It's all-consuming. It holds us hostage for so long, we forget what daylight looks like.
Occasionally, we're freed from the cellar. Strategically, we find a way out. Other times it's spontaneous, and though we don't know the exact cause of our emancipation, we do know we don't want to think about it. We convince ourselves it was a bad dream and pray we never have it again.
The following tips might help you plot your escape from the shackles of depression. Or, if that's not possible at this time, they might make your stay in that cellar a little more bearable until you can find a way out. Because you can. And you will.
1. Invite It In
Of course we resent depression. It's stolen from us -- relationships, jobs, friends, success, peace. Yet unlike a respectful guest, depression doesn't leave when asked. It doesn't disappear if we aren't paying attention to it -- it waits until we've exhausted ourselves with our chosen mode of distraction, and reminds us just how worthless we are.
So pushing it away doesn't work. It actually makes us feel worse, because we end up feeling frustrated, powerless, ashamed, and anxious in addition to the depression. Consider acknowledging that sadness, shame, depression is present, and make space for it. I promise this will not prolong the feelings. It might actually bring some relief.
Get to know it. How does depression act on you? For me, it comes about when I'm feeling disconnected from friends and family. When I haven't had enough sleep. At certain times in my cycle. When I feel a sense of meaninglessness around my existence. When my critical inner voice is being particularly convincing. When I've had too much to drink the night before. And sometimes it just comes about for reasons I can't explain. I wake up with it beside me, wondering how it snuck in despite my vigilant self-care.
When we make space for depression to be there, we can make linkages and better understand what causes it. When we become more aware of these causes, we can do what we need to feel better. Finally, we can be intentional around living our lives despite the presence of depression. We don't have to wait for the fire to be put out before moving forward. We can notice the fire, accept that it might be there for a while, and continue with our lives while allowing it to burn.
How to use this in action: Permit yourself to feel whatever you're feeling, even if it's negative. This won't cause you to be depressed longer than you would have been if you'd tried to push it away. Practice mindfulness and get to know how depression functions. Understanding what might be making us feel worse or better is helpful in tolerating it while it's around.
2. Connect Despite Depression's (Unhealthy) Advice to Isolate
Depression lies to us. It tells us to hide from the world to feel better. That no one wants to see us anyway. That no one cares. It projects sarcasm and annoyance onto the texts we receive; it tells us others' social media feeds are accurate representations of their lives. it ensures when the phone rings we press "decline." It ensures we come up with an excuse as to why we can't attend a social gathering. And in doing all that, it perpetuates an isolating cycle.
Social connection is one of the few proven treatments for depression. As human beings, we're evolutionarily programmed to desire connection and acceptance. And when we don't have those things, depression sets in.
How to use this in action: Find a way to connect in spite of depression. Confide in a close friend or family member that you're going through a tough time and need an extra push to connect. Consider group therapy, or an online support group. At the very least, connect with a psychotherapist who can help you build a more sustainable support network.
3) Use Mindfulness To Momentarily Escape the Pain
Mindfulness can be helpful in understanding our relationship to depression, but it can also be helpful in escaping the difficult feelings, however temporary our refuge might be. You see, depression keeps us trapped in the past, wondering "if only" we'd xyz. Anxiety keeps us catastrophizing about the future, dreading, panicking. Mindfulness is our reprieve. It's fully engaging in the current moment without judgment or self-criticism, permitting ourselves to just be the humans that we are.
How to use this in action: A formal meditation practice can be overwhelming and even counterproductive when depressed. Some more realistic ways of bringing about mindfulness are by connecting with nature and engaging in activities that require our full attention. Go hiking, and focus on your feet on the ground, the air, the trees, the sunlight. When thoughts come into your mind, bring your attention back to your surrounds. Try rock climbing, yoga, kickboxing or painting.
4) Find Purpose
Like every emotion, depression is there to tell us something. Sometimes, it's telling us lies. Other times, it's telling us we're not living a valued life. That we're participating in something unfulfilling, or not participating at all. When we feel a sense of meaninglessness in our lives, depression is close by. This is a fundamental concept in existentialist philosophy, in which suffering is the result of meaninglessness, yet meaning can also be derived from suffering.
How to use this in action: One of the most effective ways of garnering a sense of meaning is to be of service to others. Volunteer, teach, buy lunch for a person who is homeless. Other ways of inspiring meaning are through creative outlets, learning, spirituality, caring, and connection.
5) Practice Self-Compassion
Self-compassion isn't about letting yourself off easy or being complacent. It's about being a supportive coach to yourself. There is ample research proving self-compassion is effective in helping treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, and more.
How to use this in action: Practice these three foundational components to self-compassion:
1) Mindfulness: Make space for your difficult thoughts and feelings. Permit them to be there, observe them with an attitude of non-judgment, curiosity, and acceptance. Remind yourself that they are impermanent, like everything else, and will come and go.
2) Self-Kindness: Notice your inner critic. How does what you say to yourself differ from what you might say to a friend in the same position? Try to practice patience, tolerance, acceptance, and empathy toward yourself. Fill in the blanks "It's understandable I'm feeling ______ because ______."
3) "In This Together" Mindset: 20 percent of us go through a depression at some point in our lives. There are so many of us out there who are feeling similar feelings of agony, loneliness, hopelessness, and despair. It might not completely ease the pain, but there is some comfort in knowing we're not alone in our struggle. Remind yourself that we are all part of a unified stream of consciousness; we are all connected.
6) Use Exercise to Increase Positive Feelings
Although moving can be particularly effortful when depressed, it's another one of the few empirically-proven remedies for depression.
Exercise releases endorphins and increases serotonin (the "feel good" brain chemical) in addition to a creating a general sense of accomplishment and well-being. Furthermore, if practiced in a team environment, it can increase social connection. Finally, exercise has a positive effect on our bodies physically, leading to healthier body image and self-confidence.
How to use this in action: Support yourself by moving every day. Have realistic expectations for yourself -- you don't have to run 5 miles... or even run at all. Climb some stairs and congratulate yourself for doing so. Go to a gentle yoga class. Take a walk while listening to soulful music or an audiobook. Remind yourself you'll feel better afterward. Be held accountable by either signing up for a class and paying prior, or make a gym date with a friend.
7) Notice How What You're Putting (Or Not Putting) in Your Body Might be Contributing to Your Depressed Mood
There's more and more research on the connection between diet and mood. If your diet is lacking in vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, omega-3s, B vitamins, and probiotic bacteria, you may experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. Furthermore, if you have digestive issues (a food intolerance or allergy) that causes leaky gut syndrome, you risk not absorbing these essential nutrients and exposing yourself to dangerous, depression-causing toxins.
Finally, be mindful of your relationship to drugs and alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant and generally makes depression worse. Stimulants may cause a temporary increase in serotonin, but the resulting deficit in the neurotransmitter will make you feel even worse. If you struggle with mental illness, it's best to be highly aware of how drugs and alcohol affect your mood.
How to use this in action: Follow a plant-based, whole foods diet. Stay away from processed food as much as possible, and avoid artificial sweeteners and dyes. Consider an elimination diet to test whether or not you have food intolerances. If you have the means to do so, it's worth visiting a functional medicine practitioner for a full blood workup. However, you can also try an elimination diet on your own and notice how it makes you feel (pay attention to mood, digestion, sleep, energy levels, skin, and menstrual cycle).
8) Thank Depression for its Gifts
Oftentimes, we only see the dark side of depression. Yet as with other mental illnesses, there are gifts hidden amidst the pain. Maybe we're more empathic or more resilient. Maybe we're more creative or thoughtful. Maybe running from the pain has motivated us to achieve great things, despite the suffering we've experienced along the way. Maybe we feel a sense of purpose in wanting to help others who suffer as we do.
How to use this in action: It's hard to see the strengths depression has fostered in us when we're so used to internal abuse. Still, try to find meaning in your suffering. No one asks to be depressed, yet finding the silver lining in the suffocating cloud of depression can give us the strength we need to bear it a little longer.
Megan Bruneau is a psychotherapist, wellness coach, and writer in New York City. Check out her upcoming workshops; read more from her on her blog; watch her videos on YouTube; and find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.