I wrote in my post “Relieve Depression By Accepting Responsibility” that I found a few ways that I could consistently make myself feel a little bit better when I was recovering from being massively depressed. When I was that far gone to depression, I was not inclined to take anyone’s advice on how to feel better – how could they possibly know what would help me when they didn’t know how I felt in the first place? I just had to find out for myself the things that worked for me personally.
Knowing that anyone as depressed as I was might feel the same way I did and feel either beyond help or at least beyond pseudo-helpful quick fixes, I still want to post my list of things that helped me in case someone out there is less stubborn than I was, and might try out and be helped by my techniques.
Actually, I was fairly lucky that I managed to stumble on these depression relief techniques when I was so depressed, because it wasn’t until much later when I had recovered some and was able to go back to college that I learned there were actual scientific, chemical and hormonal reasons why these techniques worked for me – and why they might work for someone else too. The beautiful thing about most, if not all, of these items is that they are so intertwined, if you can manage to do one of them it will be a lot easier in the future to work on all of them.
1. Going outside into the rest of the world
If you read the post to which I linked above, you will know I am a huge fan of going outside when you are depressed. It is probably one of the hardest things to do, but also one of the most important. Depression naturally makes a person want to stay inside and avoid people, responsibilities, and things that should be fun but really just… aren’t when you are that depressed. For me, though, staying inside and avoiding people and doing things was one of the worst things I did to myself, and likely had a lot to do with me staying depressed for as long as I did.
Most people who are not fitness buffs will agree that getting sweaty, sore, and tired is not the most enjoyable way to spend your time. I think it is a combination of that and the fatigue and lack of motivation that depressed people often suffer from that makes exercise fairly low on the to-do list. When you are as depressed as I was, your daily to-do list might be too overwhelming if it even contains such items as “shower” and “get out of bed,” let alone exercise.
Exercise, however, releases a fairly substantial dose of chemicals in your brain that give you a sense of well-being and contentment. Even my exercise-phobic boyfriend concedes that a good workout is “better than [his] medication!” It is extremely hard to drum up the motivation, energy, and self-discipline needed to follow a consistent exercise plan, but if you could somehow pull it off you would be doing yourself a gigantic favor. I have not only found that exercise relieved my depression for at least a couple of hours at a time, but it also quieted the voices of self-doubt and worthlessness that told me every day that I was hopeless and unable to accomplish anything.
Even in the second year of my recovery from depression, when I can now function almost normally, hold a job, and get A’s in my college classes, I still use exercise as a mental boost. I no longer need to be on antidepressants or anxiety medication, and I attribute a lot of that to exercising on a regular basis. When I get anxious and feel like I am about to have a panic attack, I can go for a walk now instead of popping an Ativan and feel worlds better. A single workout can stave off the majority of my depressed feelings for hours, and the ones that are left are manageable.
3. Eating healthy
Eating food is like taking drugs. When you put food into your body, it causes all kinds of things to happen – your blood sugar goes up, and you have a ton of energy, then insulin gets released to bring the blood sugar down and your energy goes down again (the “crash”). The kinds of nutrients in your food determine how much will be stored as fat and how much will be used to build muscle and make the body healthier. Food gives your body the energy to repair damaged tissues and keep generating healthy tissue – and that includes your brain. Some (often unhealthy) foods stimulate the release of chemicals that activate not only the pleasure sensors in your brain, but also the addiction ones, causing you to eat more of the food. It seriously can be like an emotional and physical roller-coaster every time you eat.
The point, then, is to maximize the healthy results while minimizing the unhealthy ones. Keeping your body healthy, in this regard, really will have a huge effect on your emotional health as well. The only problem is that unhealthy foods (the ones that contain the highest levels of sugar and fats) are likely to taste the best and activate the immediate pleasure and addiction effects in your brain, masking the harm that they will have on your body and mental health in the long term. The game of healthy eating, then, pretty much boils down to this – are you the type of person that will give in to instant gratification, or hold out for a much greater reward in the long term?
4. Not being fat
This one, for obvious reasons, ties into the two points above, about eating healthy and getting enough exercise. I truly believe that depression and weight problems (whether it is anorexia, obesity, or anything in between) are inextricably linked. I do not have any experience with anorexia and being underweight as a result of depression, however, so for now I am just going to focus on the areas I do feel qualified to discuss.
I used to be pretty badly obese. This pretty much kept me from going out and doing things, and having a life. I felt ugly all of the time, never wanted to see anyone, and hated how I looked in my clothes. Physically, it was difficult or impossible for me to do anything strenuous (including getting dressed and tying my shoes, let alone actually exercising). I hated exercise because I would sweat a lot and I could feel my belly jiggle. I hated wearing anything but pajamas because I could feel my disgusting muffin top hanging over my waistband. It was agony when people wanted to take my picture, because I knew my fat piggy face would be even grosser than it looked in the mirror.
In short, I had a hard time thinking about myself with anything but disgust. That made it hard to take care of any other aspects of my life, both because being obese made everything ten times more difficult to do, physically and emotionally, and because I was so disgusted with myself I didn’t feel like I was worth the effort in the first place. I dealt with this, of course, by staying home, not exercising, and comforting myself with huge amounts of really unhealthy foods. You can see how that cycle perpetuates itself.
Not only that, but when a person is obese, the body starts going a little out of whack with hormone production. I know this from firsthand experience – I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Hormones, as any parent of a teenager can tell you, can make you act crazy and feel even crazier. Mood swings and depression are frequently the result.
The secret, as I learned through many failed attempts, is just to follow the same principles as in #2 and #3: exercise as much as you can make yourself and try to eat healthy foods. Losing weight is not an easy process by anyone’s standards (except maybe movie stars and models, but I am not sure their plastic to flesh ratio still allows them to be considered human anyway), but if you can manage to do it, it will probably have a ridiculously huge positive effect on your mental state as well.
I mention this point not because it is easy to solve, but because some people feel like they have better control over their physical self than their mental self – if mastering your mind and taking control of your thoughts in order to get rid of depression seems too difficult right now, try taking control of your body instead. It will probably work just as well or better.
5. Accomplish something, big or small
Depression tends to make you want to shrink inside yourself and hide from everything. For me, this meant being unable to hold a job and dropping out of college to hide in my bedroom. I had no income, nothing I was working toward, and nothing to keep me focused on anything but ruminating on how awful I felt. The fact that all of my normal friends could keep going to school and working jobs just made me feel completely worthless in comparison, which just fed my depression.
Even now, I still get a little bit depressed and anxious on school breaks, even weekends, because I have less to do that makes me feel like I am a functioning, worthwhile person that is able to accomplish things. I can somewhat help this by exercising – it not only makes me feel better for all of the above reasons, but it makes me feel like I have at least done something worthwhile in my spare time.
My advice is to find something, even just a hobby, that makes you feel like you have accomplished something for the day. Don’t start out with too lofty goals, depression has a way of making those seem completely unattainable – which makes you give up before you even have half a chance of getting there. Accomplish something small every single day and then go from there. At least, that is what worked for me.
6. See a shrink
Please, for the love of whatever deity you believe in, do not suffer in silence if you need help. Seeing a therapist was probably one of the only things that kept me functioning in those days. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like without her guidance, fresh ideas, and even simple human interaction. Plus, if you also find a psychiatrist, they may be able to hook you up with something that can make the journey a little bit more tolerable. However, don’t skip the counseling in favor of the pills. All the medicine in the world will not sort out your brain if you don’t give it a fair amount of help.
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