As it stands, I am on the precipice of a depressive episode. I recognise the signs (extreme fatigue, emotional reactivity, lots of crying, huge trouble concentrating, debilitating inertia) and I know that if I ignore what’s happening, I’ll succumb.
Beating depression is a proactive decision. If you turn away from your warning signs, chances are it won’t retreat of its own accord. That’s the hardest part: during a time when you have the least personal resilience available, you’re required to get up and fight.
I am writing this as a reminder to myself, and publishing it online because I know that it can help others too. I’ve learned plenty from my experiences with depression but it all gets buried under the dust and turmoil of the illness when I am in its grip.
Before I find myself swallowed once again by this beast, I’m going to give myself a chance to stay safe and sane. Hopefully these ideas help you too.
6 Tips for Beating Depression
1. Start with just One Thing.
I’ve made the mistake in the past of going FUCK, HERE IT COMES and overwhelming myself by attempting ALL OF THE THINGS at once to keep the Black Dog at bay.
I’ve attempted to do a full nutritional overhaul and cleanse while lining up therapy appointments, starting a new journal, searching for support groups, loading up on nutritional supplements, downloading multiple meditation apps, laying out a rigid daily schedule, reserving self-help books at the library, and on and on.
I quickly found myself too supremely exhausted to get past day one of Operation Self Care and hence reduced to helpless tears.
I know now that panic and stress about the possible onset of a breakdown are the best friends of major depression. Doing too much at once will simply bring depression to your doorstep faster than if you’d booked it an Uber yourself.
So the most important thing for beating depression is to pick one small change that you are currently capable of making, and focus on it with all your might. This is your One Thing.
For me, doing my One Thing for at least a week helps me settle and feel more in control. Depending on where you’re at, you may need more time, or less.
How do you know when you’re ready to take on one more thing? When doing your One Thing makes you feel a little better, a bit less stuck, a tiny bit empowered, and you know you can keep doing it for a little while alongside one more small thing. Then it’s time to take another tiny step toward wellness.
There are some places to start in the list below.
2. Make nutritional tweaks.
One of the most useful places to start with beating depression is your diet. This can mean adding something in that you know is healing and beneficial for your body. It can also mean getting rid of something that you know is inflammatory for your body and is not doing you any favours.
My first One Thing when I feel depressed is to eliminate alcohol. Almost without fail, when depression starts creeping in for me it’s because I’ve been indulging too heavily over a period of weeks. If I keep going, I’ll plummet in dramatic fashion.
I have a strange relationship with booze. I have removed it completely for months at a time, and I have overindulged for stretches of time too. Mostly I sit somewhere in the middle – drinking maybe a couple of times a month usually – but I will say that I generally binge when I do start drinking. I drink to get drunk. I am no stranger to hangovers.
It’s coming up to silly season now and with that come the celebrations. So many reasons to say “just this once, then a cleanse” – and before I know it, I’ve drunk more in two months than the rest of the year put together. Lately there have been friends’ birthdays, farewells, a rare one-week holiday, my 5-year anniversary with Mack, a shared tonic with a friend in need… Often, the leftover wine in the fridge tempts me again a couple of days later, which leads to more wine…
And so it comes as no surprise to me that right now I feel on the verge of a depressive episode.
So I start by committing to no alcohol and I give it a time frame in my mind. Next weekend we have another party to go to and I haven’t decided what to do about that (one of the things I hate most in life is being sober amidst a crew of merry drunks), so I am abstaining until at least then, and possibly even on the night. I’ll decide when the time comes. That’s a two-week break from booze at the very least.
I also know that coffee is a bad idea for me. Not just in vulnerable times but all the time. If I drink it regularly for a while, I start to fall apart. Coffee is a hard one for me because even though I rarely drink it anymore, when I am exhausted like I am at the moment, sometimes I crave it just so I can get my work done. The shit thing is, it does actually help me for about 3 hours. After that, I crash even harder. So I avoid coffee except in emergencies, and I forgive myself for those times I do decide it’s necessary. It means I am struggling and I need all the help I can get.
Sugar and processed foods are high on my list of foods to avoid during depression. Not only are they bad news for your microbiome (gut bacteria – and gut health is so important for mental health, but that’s another blog post), they will also send your hormones into disarray and fuck with your mood.
Processed foods aren’t much of an issue for me but sugar is another story. I crave it like a motherfucker at the best of times, but when I am low I am often driven insane by sugar cravings. I try my best to keep it to a minimum but if I succumb, that’s ok. I’ve got enough on my plate without spending more precious energy battling food cravings. If I do grab something sugary, I do it consciously, knowing why my body feels it needs it and why I am allowing it to happen. I try not to dwell on guilt or self-admonishment. If you continue to eat things you know are bad for you when you feel depressed, do it consciously and with self-compassion.
So that’s getting rid of the bad stuff. Remember, choose One Thing and let it go as much as you can. Then think about focusing on another.
Now we come to adding in the good stuff.
One of the first things I turn to when trying to fill my belly with soothing foods is green smoothies. Leafy greens are the lifeblood of earth. Seriously. We are designed to eat them at every meal, but how many of us do? Blending them with sweet fruit into a smooth yummy drink is a fantastic way to get them in. If you don’t have the equipment or energy to make your own green smoothies at home, consider buying a daily green smoothie or even a pre-made green juice from the supermarket as your One Thing to focus on. Flushing your insides green is always, always a good idea.
After leafy greens, I generally try to stick to plant-based wholefoods like other vegetables, lentils and pulses, nuts, seeds and good fats like avocado and coconut. We all know what to do, it’s just that the world around us throws a constant barrage of contradictory messages our way and we forget to eat simply and naturally. Now is the time to get back to basics.
3. Focus on the F-word.
Look, if swearing gets you by during this time, go for it. But yelling FUCK at the top of your lungs is not what I mean. I’m talking about forgiveness.
Depression for me signifies that there is a bunch of stuff I have not yet moved through. It rises up because it needs me to feel it before it can go away. In many ways, a depressed person is like purgatory for past hurts. We are walking shells filled with the ghosts of our past.
A lot of what we stop ourselves from feeling is anger. If we fail to properly acknowledge and honour anger that others cause to us, it can turn inwards and become anger directed at ourselves. This is depression.
In depression, we hold ourselves accountable for every human failure and flaw we can remember (and some new ones we invent afresh). We detest and loathe ourselves. We feel special in our failings, as if we are much, much worse than anyone else.
This self-hatred perpetuates. The lower we feel, the worse we behave toward others, who reflect our loathing back to us, which in turn makes us feel worse.
The only way out of this cycle is to practice self-forgiveness.
There may be someone else you need to forgive as well.
How the fuck do you do this? It’s not easy. It’s a whole journey in itself.
Why is it important? It’s the starting point for releasing a lot of old pain. Often the thing that prevents us moving forward is the energy it takes to keep holding someone, or ourselves, accountable for past mistakes. This does NOT mean that you forget the pain or allow it to happen again. You set healthy boundaries and you hold yourself and others to those parameters. It DOES mean allowing yourself off the hook from maintaining a lifelong vigilant hatred, because it is draining you and causing you to suffer. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves.
If your anger is directed inward, read Self Compassion by Kristin Neff.
If it’s someone else you need to forgive, try this article on forgiveness by Gabby Bernstein. Read her books too.
4. Move. Just a little.
You’ve heard this before: exercise is a natural antidepressant. Working out will protect you from depression.
Sure, but how many of us feel like hitting the gym when overcome by depression? Most of us can barely make it to the shower.
I am in this camp. Some people are able to get themselves going by sheer determination, knowing that a jog in the park will do that shit with the endorphins yada yada, but I’m not one of them.
A heavy, leaden feeling comes over me during depression. We have a winding set of stairs leading to our front door and I know that when I get to the top three steps and I have to pause, then literally drag myself along the wall to make it to the top, that I am going to go inside and collapse on the nearest soft surface. Donning active wear and launching into Zumba is out of the question.
Aside from that, for me, depression comes nicely packaged with chronic fatigue and adrenal fatigue. There are some physical conditions where rigorous exercise is more harmful than helpful, and those are two of them.
But what I do know is that small, gentle movement can make a difference. It can shift blood and muscle stagnation and send messages to your brain that you are functioning and all is well.
During my worst breakdown ten years ago, I got myself a dog. He is literally my life-saver. People often marvel at how close I am to him (read: obsessively attached) and I never tell them it’s because he brought me back to life, but he did. Ten years later he is still my little hero. I got him partly because I recognised I was in very dangerous territory of absolutely not giving a shred of a fuck about anything in the world, including myself, and because there were times when I spent an entire week holed up in my little studio apartment without once leaving. I needed something to force me outside every day. A dog will certainly do that for you.
So, even when I am at my most unwell, I am pretty much forced to head outside at least a couple of times. Even if it’s just a quick minute three times in a day to let Grover into the back lane to pee, it’s still a glimpse of sunlight and it’s a psychological step into the outside world. Admittedly there have been weekends when Mack has taken care of Grover for me, walking him, feeding him – but for the most part, even when I am lower than low, I at least make it to the nearby park for some grass and sun and the delicious peace and presence that comes from watching my dog sniff and trot happily, oblivious to my human hurts.
If a short walk is out of the question for you, lie on your bed and bend your legs into your chest one by one. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds before changing. Then try holding your legs straight up toward the ceiling – lean them against the wall if you like. This allows blood to rush downward toward your upper body. This is movement. This is something.
Is movement your One Thing? If so, start by going quiet and just asking your body what it wants to do. It will answer. Honour the answer even if it seems a little weird. Don’t worry if it’s not an hour of cardio or a proper session of yoga. Just imagine the blood inside you swirling and flushing. This will cleanse you and bring you new life.
Another way to remove stagnant energy is through the breath. You know about it. How many times have you been told to meditate as a way to beat depression and stress?
Here’s the thing: in intense, acute depression, meditation may not be right for you. I have experienced this myself. In the grip of despair, closing my eyes and heading inward was a terrifying prospect. Attempting to do so brought about shuddering panic and hysterical crying. I thought there was something deeply wrong with me until someone told me that this is sort of common in severe depression. If that’s the case for you, respect it.
There is no need to do full meditation to get the benefits of breathing. You don’t even need to close your eyes. Just follow your breath on its travels. In it goes, out it comes. Don’t worry about doing anything special, just trace it on its journey.
Eventually it will naturally start to slow. If you are in the midst of a raw or panicked moment, chances are your breath was fast and shallow at first. Let it slow naturally as you focus on it but don’t force it to change. Just listen to it and feel it.
If you are in a place where meditation feels right, by all means please meditate. I have felt the soothing effects of meditation many times. When I fall out of the habit, I feel that too. I am easily stressed and overwhelmed, for sure.
My favourite meditation helper is the Calm meditation app. There’s a basic version you can try for free but I do recommend paying for the pro version. It’s simply wonderful. And if you aren’t ready to meditate, there’s the breathe bubble to help you do some simple conscious breath work (I believe you can use this on the free version so check it out), and some gorgeous stories to listen to, which can be a really nice distraction from an icky moment.
If breathing is your One Thing, pick a regular time each day to go quiet and practice, and turn to the breath as your self-soothing first port of call.
6. Accept, feel, surrender, release.
What do all these fruity fucking imperatives have to do with beating depression?
For me, this is the most important tip of all, but also the hardest to do. Unless you are familiar with this concept it may not be the ideal One Thing to start with, but it’s certainly something to aim for.
See, our instinctive reaction to unpleasant (understatement – let’s go with devastating) emotions is to avoid and suppress. We don’t like the feelings. We are threatened by them. They feel wrong and destructive. We want to run from them, quash them, deny them, eat and drink and take drugs and fuck and read and sleep to stop them from settling in.
But what we really need to do is invite them in.
It does not come naturally and it does not bring immediate relief. But trust me on this: the more you can allow your depressive feelings to be, the less they will trouble you.
What exactly do I mean?
Picture a moment when the grief is rising up. You’re not exactly sure what you’re feeling, but you have a sense that things are terribly wrong. There’s some doom in the mix. A high level of fear. You have an urge to take action but you don’t know what to do. At this point, I cry – others lash out, drink, cut themselves.
This is the moment you can change things.
Feelings are called feelings because they are actually accompanied by a physical sensation. We forget this. Most of us aren’t taught to deal with our feelings. We are disconnected from them. We mistakenly think they reside in our minds.
So pay attention now. Fall into your body. Where are the sensations? What are they?
You may feel a heaviness across your chest. A sinking weight in your gut. Tense jaw. Stiff alert muscles, ready to fight or flee. Shallow, jagged breathing. There may be heat or cold or fluttering. Pay attention to all of it. Explore it with curiosity, as though it were someone else.
Sit with your sensations. Just allow them to be there. Keep scanning your body, noticing all its reactions. Know that they arise because your body is protecting you. These are deeply entrenched cellular reactions to something threatening. Your body is guarding you from harm.
Now that you know that these sensations arise from your body’s intelligent design, send them some love. Allow little love currents to shoot from your heart all over your body to the places that need your compassion. Don’t worry about feeling kooky. It’s the kooky shit that will save your arse from this danger. Thoughts produce form. The thoughts of love you are sending to yourself produce real-world, actual healing. This is self-soothing. You are healing yourself.
Once your body understands that you are safe, the panic will subside. Now you are in a better place to examine the hurt you are harbouring inside. What is it that you are meant to feel today?
Whatever it is, it is not too big or too nasty. You are not special in your pain – all of us have felt the same pain in our own way. When exploring these feelings, remember that you are connected to all other living beings. You are not alone in facing your pain. We all have to do this sometimes.
When you have an answer about what it is you are meant to know, the same thing applies. From your heart, send love to this emotion. It is only pain. It is only suffering. Pain an suffering are part of life. They are there as a contrast to let the beautiful things stand out. Without shadow, there is no such thing as light.
If you are still unclear on what it is you’re supposed to know and feel, accept that this is a journey. Be open to where it takes you.
Continue to feel whatever happens in your body as it arises. With each new emotion, new bodily sensations may occur. Invite them in for Netflix and chill.
Surrender to this process. Depression has shown up in your life as a healing mechanism, not a device to harm you or bring you down. Suffering is part of this process. You are strong enough to find your way through.
Once you have acknowledged and honoured your pain, you can start to release it. This does not happen overnight. Sometimes pain is sticky and it never truly leaves. Other times you think you’ve let it go, but it replays. It is not your task to “cure” yourself so that you never feel pain again. Your task is to simply learn to feel the pain, and be ok anyway.
The most important thing is to choose One Thing. Start there, ok? Proceed gently. Add another thing when you feel well enough. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Fuck, that was a much longer post than I’d planned. Don’t assume that I have nailed any of the above. This is the stuff I need to remember when I am too lost to know what to do. So if you’re reading this and thinking Yeah, great ideas, but I can barely read your idealistic rhetoric through my tears, fuck you lady – totally fair cop. I’m probably reading this in the future, thinking the exact same thing.
Tell me – what’s your One Thing?