Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Three Tips for Surviving Depression

Depression has long been an ugly, secretive dragon that has lurked in the shadows of humanity. It's also been an extremely misunderstood monster.

Pop culture has shown us extreme, cartoony versions of depression throughout the last few decades. We've seen the crying, the meltdowns, the chain-smoking. We've heard that depressed people need to light candles, get a dog, take a bubble bath, go to the spa, be thankful for what they have, stop complaining, look on the bright side, and generally, just stop. Some of this advice comes from professionals. Some of it doesn't. Anyone with depression has met at least a few people who don't suffer from depression, but have more than a little advice for people that do. It can feel like the motive behind all of this aggressive advice is "stop being depressed, it's bumming me out." It can become exhausting, and even more depressing, being told that we could cure ourselves if we just sniffed the right amount of candles... especially when we know that isn't true.

While this post only covers a few must-haves for surviving depression, please know it comes from a person who has and is struggling with depression too. These are tips that I've road-tested, and continue to use every day. I hope they can be helpful to you. You are not alone.

Movement: Movement is so important. I used to scoff at doctors who said that taking walks was good for depression, but that was before 2016. When depression hit me hardest, it took everything in my body to even get out of bed and complete small tasks at home. Suddenly, things like leaving the house, seeing friends, or working a shift at a retail job felt almost impossible. I was terrified of slipping back into the crisis state I'd been in after my concussion in 2008, and felt like I would never have energy again. Movement, walking, working out, working shifts at Starbucks... those things were what propelled me slowly back out of the weeks and months of sleepy, lifeless, hopeless existence.

Movement can come in any form you can handle. Make a small daily goal for yourself and try to stick to it, no matter what. The smaller the goal, the better chance you have of achieving it. The more you achieve goals, the better you'll feel. So start with something small, like walking to the end of your street and back once a day, or walking for ten minutes on the treadmill, or doing twenty jumping jacks a day. If you find that it's almost bedtime and you've missed your movement goal, don't give up! Do it then, anyway, even if it's late at night. If you absolutely can't, just be honest and direct with yourself. "I couldn't do my movement goal today. That's okay. I've been doing it every day, and I'll do it tomorrow." Then, with as much power as you have in you, try to forgive yourself and let it go. Guilt is not your friend, so try to banish it from your life.

Support system: Many people with depression feel alone. Depression is a strange, invisible, mythical condition that some people will never experience or understand. To them, depression looks like it does on TV... sad girls crying into ice cream when they have a breakup, dramatic crying episodes from unhappy wives, etc. But that is not always what depression looks like. It can be quiet, even silent, and it is almost always physical in ways that people without depression can't understand. Sometimes I have told bosses that I was sick, because it was easier to explain how little energy I had by saying I'd caught a germ, rather than admitting that depression/anxiety had gotten the better of me for a day. Depression can make you feel as exhausted as someone battling a flu, and anxiety can make you feel as sweaty, sick to your stomach, and weak as having a bad cold. So how can you handle those really awful days alone, when people don't understand what you're going through?

You shouldn't. You need a support system. Reach out to people online, reach out to friends, or people who are suffering from depression as well. Ask them about their experiences and advice. Reach out to a therapist, or a counselor. Find at least one person who you can be honest with, when you're feeling too depressed to complete a simple task, make a phone call, or handle an important matter. If you feel like you might be burdening your friend with this, ask them ahead of time if it's okay for you to reach out to them when you need a support system. Consider starting with, "I'm having a bad depression day. Can I tell you what's going on in my head right now?" If you start off this way, they can be honest with you about if they have time and energy to help you, and you won't feel like you are burdening them.

Kindness: This is a big one. Not everyone is naturally empathetic, but anyone who is suffering from depression knows how hard life can be. Fighting a monster like depression while also living in a kind, loving way can feel like a challenge. But doing things for other people can be both incredibly rewarding, and a great way to counteract the nastiness of depression and anxiety.

So much of depression revolves around guilt. There's guilt for why you're depressed, for when you're depressed, for the things that you miss because you're depressed, for the people you've let down, etc. Depression is one big ugly ball of guilt. A great way to shatter that guilt is with kindness and giving. Take time to send a nice message to a friend, even if it's something tiny. Send a link to a funny meme you know your friend will like. Pay for the person's coffee behind you at Starbucks. Say hello to an older person who looks lonely in line at the grocery store. Send a friend $5 as a surprise, just because. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Ask a friend if you can dog-sit for them for free, just to get some awesome dog-cuddling time in. Taking charge and helping someone else in their time of need can short circuit your own anxiety or depression temporarily, allowing you to concentrate on something outside of your own brain. Small acts of kindness help you to feel stronger, happier, and more connected with others. It also reminds you, even in a small way, that you are a good person, worthy of getting better and feeling better.

I hope these things help you. While this is a very short list, these are some of the most important tools I've used for fighting back at depression. If you need someone to talk to, you can reach out to me, or you should call 212-673-3000, or another crisis/depression hotline. Be good to yourself. Be kind to yourself. Be forgiving of yourself. You are not alone.

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