Depression drains your energy, hope, and drive, making it difficult to do what you need to feel better. But while overcoming depression isn’t quick or easy, it’s far from impossible. You can’t just will yourself to “snap out of it,” but you do have some control—even if your depression is severe and stubbornly persistent. The key is to start small and build from there. Feeling better takes time, but you can get there if you make positive choices for yourself each day.
Recovery from drugs and alcohol usually brings the need for recovery from co-occurring conditions as well, depression being commonly one of them. Recovery from depression requires action but initiating and following through on action can be hard when you are depressed. Even thinking about what you know you should do to feel better, like getting some light exercise in or spending time with friends, can feel overwhelming or exhausting.
Ultimately this is the great catch-22 of depression and depression recovery. The things that can help the most, no matter how simple, can feel like the most difficult to do. There is a difference though between what seems, or what feels, difficult and what is impossible. This is a difference between can and cannot.
Start Small and Stay Focused!
The key to beginning a recovery from a depressive state is to start with a few small goals, even one or two is fine, and build up from there. Draw energy from whatever resources you have available: one trusted friend or family member, an uplifting podcast, an upbeat movie, and energizing song. You may feel like you don’t have much energy; but you certainly have enough to take a 10-minute walk. Each time your mind wanders to past events or begins to worry about future possibilities, gently encourage your thoughts back to observations in the moment of where you are now.
Cultivate Supportive Relationships!
Getting the support you need plays a big role in lifting the fog of depression and keeping it away. On your own, it can be difficult to maintain perspective and sustain the effort required to beat depression, but the very nature of depression makes it difficult to reach out for help. While isolation and loneliness can trigger or worsen depression, maintaining emotionally close relationships can be instrumental in overcoming it.
The thought of reaching out to even close family members and friends can seem overwhelming. You may feel ashamed, too exhausted to talk, or guilty for neglecting the relationship. Remind yourself that this is the depression talking. Reaching out is not a sign of weakness and it won’t mean you’re a burden to others. Your loved ones care about you and want to help. And remember, it’s never too late to build new friendships and improve your support network.
- Turn to friends and family members who make you feel loved and cared for. Spend time talking and listening face-to-face with trusted people and share what you’re going through. The people you talk to don’t have to be able to fix you; they just need to be good listeners. Ask for the help and support you need. You may have retreated from your most treasured relationships, but emotional connection can get you through this tough time.
- Try to keep up with social activities even if you don’t feel like it. Often when you’re depressed, it feels more comfortable to retreat into your shell, but being around other people will make you feel less depressed.
- Join a support group for depression. Being with others dealing with depression can go a long way in reducing your sense of isolation. You can also encourage each other, give and receive advice on how to cope, and share your experiences.
Get Up and Get Moving!
When you’re depressed, just getting out of bed can seem like a daunting task, let alone exercising. But exercise is a powerful tool for dealing with depression. In fact, major studies show that regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medication at increasing energy levels and decreasing feelings of fatigue.
Evidence suggests that physical activity triggers new cell growth in the brain, increases mood-enhancing neurotransmitters and endorphins, reduces stress, and relieves muscle tension—all things that can have a positive effect on depression.
While the most benefits come from exercising 30 minutes or more per day, you can start small. Short, 10-minute bursts of activity can have a positive effect on your mood. You don’t need to train at the gym, sweat buckets, or run mile after mile, either. Even very small activities that get your arms and legs moving can add up over the course of a day. Try incorporating walking, running, swimming, dancing or another rhythmic exercise—that requires moving both your arms and legs—into your daily routine. The key is to pick an activity you enjoy, so you’re more likely to stick with it. Even very small activities can add up over the course of a day. Here are a few easy ways to get moving:
- Put on some music and dance around
- Take your dog for a walk
- Use the stairs rather than an elevator
- Park your car in the farthest spot in the lot
- Pair up with an exercise partner
Challenge Your Thinking!
Depression puts a negative spin on everything, including the way you see yourself, the situations you encounter, and your expectations for the future.
But you can’t break out of this pessimistic mind frame by “just thinking positive.” Happy thoughts or wishful thinking won’t cut it. Rather, the trick is to replace negative thoughts with more balanced thoughts.
- Think outside yourself. Ask yourself if you’d say what you’re thinking about yourself to someone else. If not, stop being so hard on yourself. Think about less harsh statements that offer more realistic descriptions.
- Allow yourself to be less than perfect. Many depressed people are perfectionists, holding themselves to impossibly high standards and then beating themselves up when they fail to meet them. Battle this source of self-imposed stress by challenging your negative ways of thinking
- Socialize with positive people. Notice how people who always look on the bright side deal with challenges, even minor ones, like not being able to find a parking space. Then consider how you would react in the same situation. Even if you have to pretend, try to adopt their optimism and persistence in the face of difficulty.
- Keep a "negative thought log." Whenever you experience a negative thought, jot down the thought and what triggered it in a notebook. Review your log when you’re in a good mood. Consider if the negativity was truly warranted. Ask yourself if there’s another way to view the situation. For example, let’s say your boyfriend was short with you and you automatically assumed that the relationship was in trouble. It's possible, though, he’s just having a bad day.
Shift to a Mood-Boosting Diet!
What you eat has a direct impact on the way you feel. Aim for a balanced diet of low-fat protein, complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables. Reduce your intake of foods that can adversely affect your brain and mood, such as caffeine, alcohol, trans fats, saturated fats, and foods with high levels of chemical preservatives or hormones (such as certain meats).
- Don’t skip meals. Going too long between meals can make you feel irritable and tired, so aim to eat something at least every three to four hours.
- Minimize sugar and refined carbs. You may crave sugary snacks, baked goods, or comfort foods such as pasta or French fries, but these “feel-good” foods quickly lead to a crash in mood and energy.
- Focus on complex carbohydrates. Foods such as baked potatoes, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal, and whole grain breads can boost serotonin levels without a crash.
- Boost your B vitamins. Deficiencies in B vitamins such as folic acid and B-12 can trigger depression. To get more, take a B-complex vitamin supplement or eat more citrus fruit, leafy greens, beans, chicken, and eggs.
- Try super-foods rich in nutrients that can boost mood, such as bananas (magnesium to decrease anxiety, vitamin B6 to promote alertness, tryptophan to boost feel-good serotonin levels), brown rice (serotonin, thiamine to support sociability), and spinach (magnesium, folate to reduce agitation and improve sleep).
- Consider taking a chromium supplement. Some depression studies show that chromium picolinate reduces carbohydrate cravings, eases mood swings, and boosts energy. Supplementing with chromium picolinate is especially effective for people who tend to overeat and oversleep when depressed.