Before we talk about how to treat depression, we need to agree on what kind of depression we are talking about. Severe depression with feelings of hopelessness and/or suicidality may be a brain chemistry issue, and for this or other reasons often will not respond to self-treatment.
This is a serious condition that requires immediate attention from a mental health professional. This kind of depression often requires medication at the beginning of treatment, and sometimes for the long term.
There is, however, a spectrum of depression that is more manageable for the sufferer, from mild – feeling “blue” or “the blahs” – to more medium severity where you don’t feel like doing anything, don’t want to get up in the morning, or can’t see anything of value in your life. If you have this kind of mild to moderate depression, there are tools that can help manage it.
Sometimes our depression is caused by environmental factors – job, relationship or lack thereof, concerns over finances – all of these can cause anxiety and anxiety can flip into depression, especially if the problem causing it is ongoing.
When we start to think “I’m never going to be able to fix this” we can easily become depressed about it. The challenge is to not allow that defeated thought to take root. If you have relationship problems, you can see a counselor.
If you have problems at work, you can look for a better job. If you have financial trouble, you can take steps to improve it like refinancing your mortgage, or creating and following a budget. Sometimes, if we improve our circumstances, we can improve our mood. Having said that, there are some tried and true techniques to help with that.
How to Treat Depression: Some Practical Tools
Figuring out how to treat depression without medication is best approached holistically. We are holistic beings, with a body, mind, soul (the seat of our emotions), and spirit. Maladjustment in any one of these areas can cause anxiety or depression.
People who are less active, or don’t get exposed to enough sunlight, or eat too much sugar, or don’t eat healthily, or spend long hours staring at a computer or TV screen, or don’t get enough sleep can be susceptible to increasing depression and/or anxiety.
Tools to work against it:
- Evaluate your habits and how they are impacting your body
- Choose a simple change you can make:
- Cutting out sugary snacks
- Taking a walk
- Getting up from your desk once an hour
- Shopping the walls (fresh meat, dairy, produce)
- Make the change
- Stick with it for a month
- Re-evaluate how your new habits are impacting your body
We are what we repeatedly think. If every time I make a simple mistake, an inner voice says “Idiot!” or “You’re useless!” then I am constantly running myself down for being human.
If I listen to the news every day and lose my hope for humanity, or start to feel doomed, or suffer hardships and allow them to move me toward hopelessness, I am accepting a negative interpretation of a future that is not written yet.
Tools to work against it:
- Evaluate your inner dialogue – what are you most often saying to yourself?
- When you catch a negative thought pattern, begin to interrupt it. Stuff truth in the mouth of the lie. “I’m so stupid!” “No. That’s a lie. I just dropped my milk on the floor. I’m just human.”
- When you identify a trigger, change your behavior. If listening to the news makes you fearful or depressed, stop listening so often. Limit yourself to a glance at the headlines, or listen half the time or every other day. If you realize sitting in front of your computer seems to increase your feelings of depression, set a timer and get up every 50 minutes, walk around, and take some deep breaths. Focus on the horizon for a few minutes. Notice the world.
- Physical activity has been proven to help with depressed moods. You don’t have to do an hour of cardio if that’s not your thing. Just get up and walk around the block, work in the garden, or check the mail. Again, take some deep breaths and notice your surroundings.
- If you’re troubled by thoughts from the past, or fears about the future, locate yourself in the present. The past is not happening now. The future is not written, so it is not happening now. All I have is now. I can tell myself that a fearful or depressing thought about the future is not happening now. Locate yourself in the room. Pick up something in the room and notice it, the texture, the temperature, the weight. Describe it to yourself. Your mind can only focus on one thing at a time, so this can be a powerful tool for disrupting negative thought patterns.
Our feelings are affected by every other part of our being. Chronic pain or hunger can make me feel depressed. Eating too much can make me feel depressed. Thinking negative thoughts can stir up sad or angry feelings.
I may be wired by experience or childhood trauma to expect the worst or to worry about things I can’t change or control. If my default is negative feelings, that can be hard to disrupt, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a try.
Tools to work against it:
- Keep tabs on your emotions. Ask the question, “What am I feeling?” Assign a word to your emotion – happy, sad, irritated, scared, frustrated. Try not to cast negative emotions as “bad.” Negative emotions serve a purpose, and allow us to process and sometimes change difficult issues in our life.
- Be curious about why you’re feeling that way, “I wonder what that’s about?” If we have suffered recent trauma or loss, our feelings may make perfect sense, even if they are painful. But not all negative feelings have an obvious cause. We don’t have to just let negative emotions drive our bus. By being curious about them, sometimes we discover the motivation and can turn those feelings around. Being sad may be unpleasant, but it isn’t “bad.” If we allow those sad feelings to make us despondent or suicidal, we need to get help right away. If your sadness tends to lead you toward depression or despondency, imagine there’s a door inside that leads to it. When you notice you’re feeling sad, notice the door and choose not to go through it. Then use redirection.
- Use redirection – when you are feeling sad or depressed “for no good reason” or interrupt a negative thought pattern, quickly turn your focus to something else. “What’s next?” is a great question. Choosing something to do with your time and doing it is a great way to redirect your thinking and focus, and thereby disrupt a negative thought pattern or unhelpful emotion.
- If negative feelings become disruptive and unmanageable, get help from a mental health counselor. Knowing when to ask for help is important.
Whatever your spiritual practices may be, most of us fall out of them from time to time, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years. Spiritual practices remind us that there is someone to help us with things that are above our pay grade, remind us that there is help in times of trouble, that even if the worst happens, we believe we will be okay. Allowing this support to slip away can leave us vulnerable to anxiety and depression when hard times come.
Tools to work against it:
- Revisit or develop a list of spiritual practices. Keep it simple. Such lists often include things like prayer, sitting quietly, deep breathing, reading, journaling, or creative outlets like painting or playing/listening to music.
- Notice places where your relationship to your Creator has become dogmatic and less personal. What does it look like to be a friend of God?
- Imagine God’s altar as a place where you can leave all your worries, fears, sorrows, hopes, dreams and aspirations. The future, all of it, is not written yet. It is not mine to worry about, be depressed about, or be fearful about because I don’t know how it will unfold. Making up a negative, imaginary future is a waste of my time. And can ruin my ability to enjoy whatever is good in the present.
Hopefully, you will find some of these tools useful. If you try something for a month and notice no improvement, admit that and move on. As always, if you find that your feelings are getting worse, that your distress is increasing and becoming unmanageable, that is the time to reach out and get help from a mental health professional.
“Getting Steps In”, Courtesy of Arek Adeoye, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Walking on the Pier”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Laying Down”, Courtesy of Zulmaury Saavedra, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “On the Beach”, Courtesy of Nils Nedel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License