In the midst of clinical depression, it might feel like the future is hopeless, that our problems will never be resolved, or that we are legitimately worthless, broken, or inferior. The notion that “this too shall pass” and the suggestion of research-backed techniques and steps people can take to improve depression may sound like an absolutely unrealistic and overly optimistic sales pitch.
Given that even the most psychologically healthy people are unfamiliar with the steps they can take to improve their mental health, it’s no wonder that there isn’t enough awareness of proven practices that can help us better cope with mental health challenges. Researchers in psychological health have studied interventions and approaches for improving mental health over the last several decades and have identified a number of proven techniques individuals can take to help themselves feel better.
In this article, we will review a number of self-help, evidence-based methods and strategies commonly taught in individual therapy. Please note, however, that this article should not be considered a replacement for therapy or other treatments, but an opportunity for you to learn (and hopefully practice) self-help on your own or alongside your work with a therapist!
The following self-help methods were drawn from the book Feeling Good, by world-renowned psychiatrist, Dr. David Burns.
Also, if you need immediate help or if you are having thoughts of death or suicide, call 1-800-273-TALK. If you need immediate assistance, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.
From a cognitive therapy perspective, it is assumed that all feelings (positive and negative) result from our thoughts or perceptions. Subsequently, when you are able to successfully change the (negative) ways in which you are thinking, you will find that your mood improves. Although quite basic, this connection between thoughts and feelings is not commonly discussed in families or taught in schools. Yet the connection between them is obvious. Wouldn’t it make sense for someone to feel depressed and hopeless if they thought of themselves as being worthless, broken, and inferior?
Topics we will explore include:
Since depression is a painful condition that often produces feelings of shame, we often get so focused on coping with the depression that we forget to be curious about it. Depression can be aided by positive thinking and it can even have indirect benefits that we need to appreciate when we think about untangling the grip depression has on our lives. Perhaps your depression is related to your passion for honesty and justice, two positive qualities that shouldn’t be thrown out with the proverbial bathwater.
Often during prolonged periods of coping with depression, the disease creates positive outcomes you may fear losing. Perhaps your depression functions as an excuse for giving up, or as a way to connect with other people who attempt to comfort you. If your depression shields you from having to take responsibility or face certain realities in your life, you might be hanging onto it subconsciously for valid reasons. You may need to work on strengthening certain skills or building new ways of connecting with others to put yourself in a position to let go of depression.
A good exercise can be to get curious about your depression. Ask yourself how it might help you, protect you, or benefit you to be depressed. Consider which positive aspects of who you are might make you prone to depressing thoughts. Discuss your list with a therapist with the goal of unlocking renewed appreciation for your unique personality and your relationship with your depression.
Thoughts that we experience throughout our day can range anywhere from extremely (and commonly, unrealistically) positive to extremely (and often unrealistically) negative. While not all negative thoughts are “bad” per se, it’s the cognitive distortions, or exaggerated and irrational thought patterns, that typically result in depressed mood states (among other mental health problems, such as anxiety) and they result in a misperception of reality. When feeling depressed, take a closer look at what it is that you are saying to yourself and check your thoughts against the list of “cognitive distortions” below. Do you notice any flaws in your thinking?
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking. You think about things in absolute, black-and-white categories. You are either a success or a failure. Your performance was totally good or totally bad. If you are not perfect, then you are a failure. This binary approach does not account for shades of gray that may more closely match the reality of your situation.
2. Overgeneralization. You view a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. You draw faulty conclusions about something based on just one example. After interviewing for and not getting a job, we may overgeneralize by thinking we’ll never be able to get a job.
3. Mental filter. You focus and dwell on the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positive ones.
4. Discounting Positives. You insist that your positive qualities and experiences don’t count.
5. Jumping to Conclusions. You jump to conclusions not warranted by the facts. There are two ways we do this.
- Mind-Reading: You assume you know what other people think, and often you assume they’ll react negatively to you.
- Fortune Telling: You predict or assume that things will turn out badly.
6. Magnification or Minimization. You blow things way out of proportion or shrink the importance of something that’s actually significant.
7. Emotional Reasoning. You reason from your feelings. For example: “I feel like an idiot, so I must be one.” Or “I feel hopeless. This means I’ll never get better.”
8. Should Statements. You criticize yourself or other people with “shoulds,” “shouldn’ts,” “musts,” “oughts,” and “have-tos.”
- “I Should” Statements: Lead to feelings of guilt and inferiority
- “Others’ Should” Statements: Lead to feelings of bitterness, anger, and frustration
9. Labeling (Ourselves or Others). We take one narrow characteristic about ourselves or someone else and globally apply it to the whole person. Rather than objectively considering the behavior, we engage in “labeling” (and often ignore information that doesn’t fit under the umbrella of the label). “Because I didn’t do well on a test, that makes me a failure,” or “Because she is frequently late to work, she is irresponsible.”
10. Blame. You focus on finding fault instead of solving the problem. There are two ways this is done:
- Self-Blame: You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for.
- Other-Blame: You blame others from a “victim perspective” and overlook ways you contributed to the problem.
Ditch the Double Standards about Depression
As an experiment, try talking to yourself in the same kind and caring way that you would to a friend or family member who was feeling depressed. A double standard is present if we are comfortable saying cruel and critical things to ourselves, but we would never actually say them to someone else.
For example, would you ever say to a friend, “You are a worthless human being, and nobody will ever love you!” I’m guessing not! Notice what you do and don’t say to your depressed self in this exercise and make a list of any differences from your normal self-reflective thoughts. Talk through this list with a therapist or trusted friend.
Balance Your Perspective
Instead of outright buying into your negative belief, consider a perspective that incorporates healthy acceptance and self-defense (against the negative belief). For example, if you were thinking, “I am a worthless human being and nobody will ever love me,” a balanced perspective could be: “It’s true that I might not be the most worthy human in the world, and it’s possible that I won’t find a partner and will then need to find happiness on my own” (healthy acceptance). “On the other hand, everyone has worth, and there’s always a chance that I‘ll find a partner if I decide to continue searching” (self-defense). Try this 50/50 balanced perspective technique out with your own depressed thoughts.
Loss of interest and engagement in hobbies and activities you previously enjoyed is a classic symptom of depression. When a lack of motivation and indifference are present, it is easy for individuals suffering from depression to find themselves stuck in seemingly boring routines, spending a substantial portion of their lives at home engaging in “mindless and boring” activities (laying in bed, scrolling through social media, watching hours of TV, etc). In moderation, all of those activities are quite reasonable; however, when depressed, it’s common for them to absorb several hours of life in place of other activities that bring enjoyment and a sense of achievement. The inactivity itself perpetuates the depressed mood because it feeds into negative thoughts such as “See, I’m a loner and a boring person.”
So what can you do about inactivity? Schedule ACE activities—which are any activity that currently or previously provided a sense of Achievement, Closeness and Enjoyment.
Increasing activity levels can make a substantial impact on depression by:
- Spending time with people you enjoy
- Giving you a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment
- Helping you develop the motivation and confidence to do more
- Making you feel less stuck, tired, sick, or unhealthy
- Improving the capacity to think clearly
- Helping you think about something else other than negative, unrealistic, and unhelpful thoughts
- Providing you with exercise (which can be a natural antidepressant)
Many people with depression think that they will get active once they feel motivated, as if there will be a moment when the motivation fairy comes along, and POOF, motivation arrives—and then BOOM, they are ready to get active. This belief that they need to feel like doing something before they actually do it, unfortunately, is flawed and unrealistic thinking. This is a classic cart-before-the-horse mindset. Action will need to come first, then motivation will follow. Don’t wait until you feel motivated to increase your engagement in hobbies and pleasurable activities or you may find yourself waiting forever.
Bonus Self-Help Tips for Depression
In addition to the CBT technique we listed above for depression, here are a few other self-help techniques and lifestyle changes to consider:
- Practice assertiveness (that is, express your thoughts and feelings)
- Practice mindfulness/meditation
- Practice deep breathing
- Exercise consistently
- Ensure you are satisfied with your job/career
- Maintain good work-life balance and use your paid time off
- Ensure your relationships are healthy
- Get quality sleep
- Eat a balanced diet
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes, and other drugs.
Like developing any new skill, all of these techniques and lifestyle changes take practice and time. If you are not finding relief from your depression on your own, then it’s a good idea to seek out assistance from a trained mental health professional.
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