Coping with depression

It is hard to log in to any sort of media this week without hearing about depression, and the sad death of Robin Williams. When someone famous succumbs to this illness there is often a flurry of commentary fueled by fear and sadness, and a commitment to start talking and acting more.

For this conversation to be meaningful, we need to understand what depression is so that we can recognise it in ourselves and others. It is also important to understand what basic strategies can be used to help yourselves or those you care about, and when to ask for help or seek professional treatment.

Depression is an illness, which is triggered by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. The experience of depression varies from person to person. While some people experience strong feelings of sadness and are frequently tearful, for others sadness may be less prominent. Other symptoms of depression can include a loss of interest or enjoyment in things that were once meaningful. People who are depressed often describe feeling empty or heavy, and have difficulty motivating themselves. Fatigue, irritability, and agitation make each day difficult to get through. Sleep and appetite can also both be affected by low mood, and people can either sleep or eat considerably more or less than usual. Alongside all of these symptoms, when depressed it is common to have a swirl of negative thoughts. The very symptoms of the illness can feed the inner critic’s voice and be used as ammunition with which to berate oneself. People who are depressed often describe a deep sense of being worthless, and the stigma or shame they direct at themselves can make recovery hard.

Perhaps the most dangerous symptom of depression is a sense of hopelessness that comes with the illness. To endure the suffering of depression, and to not believe that things can or will improve, can have devastating effects.

People wear their masks of depression differently. While some people find it difficult to drag themselves from their beds, others are very good at going through the motions of daily life. If you are worried about someone in your life, take the time to check in and ask if they are ok. Be prepared to listen, walk beside them, and be patient. Depression is a hard illness from which to break free. Taking a compassionate and non-judgmental approach is therefore really important. Remember no-one chooses to be depressed. Ask the person you are concerned about what they need from you to feel supported.

Depression can be a tricky illness because its very symptoms make it hard to do the things that help with recovery. When you are unmotivated and feel that nothing is fun any more, it can be hard to force yourself to do the things you once enjoyed. Often early in psychological treatment we ask clients to act “as if” they weren’t depressed, and to do things that give them an opportunity to experience some joy or a sense of achievement. Below are five tips for starting to improve your mood:

  1. Each night plan two small activities for the next day; one that gives you the opportunity for enjoyment, and that other than is likely to give you a sense of achievement. Keep it small and manageable to start with.

  2. Get active. Research suggests that exercise is a great mood enhancer, and it is even better if done outside in some bright light. This can be getting off a tram one stop earlier, walking round the block, or going for a run. Start with what is realistic for you.

  3. Be social. Even if the depression is screaming at you to hide under your duvet choose a few trusted people to connect with. Often time with other people can help you to improve your mood.

  4. Develop a balanced lifestyle. Eat a healthy diet, develop a regular sleep routine, and minimise stress where possible.

  5. Talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling and what is going on in your life. Let them know how they can help you.

These steps sound simple when seen written down; however, we know that when you are depressed these basic strategies can feel like climbing Everest. If you have tried all these things and do not feel any better, or you are having trouble getting started or escaping the tirade or thoughts and emotions that are bogging you down, it may be time to seek professional help. Psychology, medication, or a combination of the two is considered ‘gold standard’ treatment for depression. You can contact one of our psychologists to discuss, or contact your GP. If you require urgent support, or are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Tom Morley