5 Things That Help When I’m Depressed

depression-coping-0516134Those of you who’ve read my chapter in the anthology Goddess Shift: Women Leading for a Change know that I have had plenty of personal experience with depression, and that I have a unique relationship with it. I believe this has been an enormous help to me in helping others with depression. So I thought it might be useful to share some of what I do when I get depressed.

What resolves depression is grieving losses and traumas, changing brain chemistry, changing life circumstances, and time. What I have written below is more about what I do to cope during the process of resolution. This is not a complete list, by any means, but it is key for me and I hope you find it useful for you or someone you know.

1. Stay in bed, and give in to the exhaustion and lack of motivation.

This is a tricky call because spending time in bed, sleeping, isolating, crying, etc., can sometimes be the worst thing for depression, and can exacerbate and prolong it. Sometimes the best thing I can do to cope with depression is to keep busy. My mother used to tell me when I was growing up that when she got depressed, she’d clean out a closet. Many of us have noticed that when we have to keep functioning—keep parenting, working, or whatever—we actually get through the depression better. When busy is what helps, I try to accomplish something satisfying.

On the other hand, depression can be a sign that we need rest. Though giving up and not functioning can be the exact opposite of what’s helpful at times, other times it can be exactly what is needed for my brain to begin to heal. If I have the time the sense that I need a break from life, I will try this. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel better, and may even make me more aware of the pain I’m in. But I use the time to rest, think, write in a journal, and express my feelings, and within a few hours or days I am usually more ready to join life. Sometimes I’m ready because I feel better, and sometimes just because I’m bored with lying around. If it doesn’t go that way, I force myself to get up and join life and try to heal another way. The call on whether to rest or get busy has to come from experience with yourself, intuition, and experimenting.

2. Force myself to exercise.

Exercise is one of the hardest things to do when I’m depressed, and yet it is one of the absolute proven ways to feel better. Few people when they’re depressed love getting up and exercising, but most people feel better after they do it. You probably already know it does all the right things for brain chemistry, and can be as effective as medication. The trick is not to think about it. As soon as I start to think about it, I talk myself out of it. I have to “just do it” without thinking about it. The form or exercise should be rewarding in itself—walking amid nature, in interesting parts of the city, or with a friend, dancing, Zumba (if that’s your thing; it’s not mine), or cycling—whatever involves movement and increased heart rate for a sustained period of time.

3. Fantasize about something so amazing that it might give me pleasure.

My mind is my best friend. It can comfort me, figure out solutions to problems, entertain me, and take me traveling anywhere in the world or anywhere I can imagine, even if it doesn’t exist. I can virtually travel to the ocean, listen to the waves wash rhythmically to the shore, and feel the blue, salty water lap at my feet, the sand squishing between my toes. I can take care of dying people in India, go canyoning in France, raft in Idaho, live in an RV, go to Sundance, live on a farm, study painting at a retreat in Vermont … OK, these are random things and maybe not what you want to fantasize about, but something might give you a little pleasure or relief, and if you let your mind explore, you might find what it is for you. It’s free; you can do it anytime, and your mind responds to what you imagine the same way it does to what you see.

4. Look for pleasure through my senses.

Pleasure is incompatible with depression. Anywhere I can find pleasure, as long as it doesn’t hurt me or anyone else, it’s a good thing. The gift of being alive is our bodies, and that means our senses and our emotions. I remind myself of that and consider what would feel good: a hot bath, gently scratching my head, walking, smelling cinnamon, stroking my cat, tasting something delicious, hugging someone I love, lying on pine needles, putting my hand over my heart and feeling the warmth and protection from that, singing to music I love … whatever harmlessly gives me pleasure—even a little—I go toward that.

5. Talk to someone about whatever I need to complain about.

This is one of the most important options for me, but also one of the harder ones to arrange. People have to be available, capable, and in the mood. Fortunately, I cultivate people who can and want to do this well when I need it, including my own therapist.

I would love to hear from you about what helps you when you are depressed.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Donna B

    May 16th, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    I have learned that talking to others is not burdening them but rather lifting a little bit of a burden off of me. That’s what friends are there for, and I make sure to take the time to talk to them during the times when they need me too.

  • catrina

    May 17th, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    Isn’t it contrary to everything that we have always read about depression to stay in bed and almost revel in that misery? I am fine with recognizing and accepting it but. . . if I don’t want to wallow in that forever, I think that you have to get up out of bed, stare it down and fight it. Don’t give into it.

  • Jana

    February 16th, 2014 at 5:17 PM

    So true, people do not have a clue. Get up and get out. You are the only one that can do this as you are the on who put yourself there. Do something for others as this will take your mind off self pitty and you will feel better for it.

  • Christopher

    May 18th, 2013 at 5:35 AM

    Yeah these are great tips and I can see how doing nay one of combination of these things could be pretty powerful to helping someone who is struggling with depression.

    But most of us aren’t going to have this little checklist hanging on the mirror to remind us of the little things that we need to do to help ourselves. There are going to be times when it all feels so overwhelming, how do you train the brain to look for these tips? How do you know that you will remember the things that need to be done when the time comes?

  • Anna

    July 27th, 2017 at 7:22 AM

    That’s a great point, but I think you answered it yourself. Why not make your own list when you are doing better and hang it on your mirror? I actually have to thank you because that is a fantastic idea that I think I will do right now.

  • Shana

    May 18th, 2013 at 7:00 AM

    I have to agree with the bed thing to an extent.
    In recent years I have made sure not to be in bed and keep myself busy with something.
    Cleaning / tidying up keeps me distracted with my favourite music playing to keep me motivated.

    However, sometimes if you haven’t laid in bed, even for an hour and just let out the tears or, as mentioned above, let your mind and body rest for a bit, the low mood tends to linger longer, in my experience.

    So, although I don’t spend time in bed like I used to in my early 20s, sometimes it is the best thing, just maybe not for days, but if you need it, you need it.
    I think as long as there is someone to keep an eye on you.

    Talking about things with someone is also the best thing, but if like me you don’t have that, writing it all down as if you are talking to a friend takes a bit of the weight away.

  • Kristina

    August 15th, 2017 at 9:53 AM

    I completely agree, that sometimes, it’s ok to give in, and just rest. I recently went through a time when everything overwhelmed me. I had a slew of doctor’s appointments that I kept rescheduling for the next week, because I just couldn’t do it. I could barely do anything. What had been easy months before suddenly became trying to run while in the mud.
    My psychiatrist said “Why don’t you just take a break? There’s nothing and nobody that says you have to take care of all of this now.”
    So, I did. I rescheduled all the appointments for a month later. Then, the only thing I focused on, the only goal I had, was to get some sleep and do some crying, if I could. My sleep had been off for about a month before I hit the depression skids, and I’d had an event happen that brought up old traumas. And that’s what I did – let myself sleep and cry and sleep and cry, and that was my accomplishment each day.
    Turns out, it only took a week of that to turn the depression around. I just needed a sec to grieve and take care of myself. It was only then that I could start adding one more thing per day, get to one appointment, wait a few days to go to another, slowly build up re-entering the stream of life.
    In other words, I just needed to let myself all apart for a little bit. It was the first time in my 30+ years of dealing with depression that I allowed myself to do this, guilt-free. Because of how action can help depressions not get so deep, I had always focused on that, and then felt horrible when I just couldn’t. This was a powerful lesson to learn, that sometimes, just gently letting myself be depressed shortened the amount of time I spent in the dark.

  • Runninfast

    May 20th, 2013 at 4:48 AM

    I can’t say enough about the benefits of exercise in your life.
    I won’t be one of those people who tells you that this can be your cure all. But I will be one of those people who stresses just how good it can allow you to feel if you would simply give it a chance. It must be hard to even think about doing anything active when you are feeling so down and depressed. If, though, you would just find a way to get up and get moving, it can help you so much in how you feel on both a mental and physical level. You don’t have to push yourself to do a marathon, but you could take a walk or a bike ride and I think that you will quickly see just how much getting out of the house and getting active can help you feel.

  • G

    May 29th, 2013 at 3:52 PM

    These are things I try to do too, its difficult to keep up though. It’s good to lie down and rest, and gather your thoughts. I always think writing things down is a good idea, feels like you’re giving your brain some space. But again, hard to keep up. Curses.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    May 29th, 2013 at 10:38 PM

    If none of these or other tools you know are working for you, or you can’t get yourself to do any of them, it’s time to seek professional help. Especially if it’s been two weeks of feeling horribly depressed. Depression is treatable for most people, and more treatable the sooner you get treatment. At least meet with someone you have confidence in a few times and get their assessment of what is going on and what you need. We all need someone to talk to who will listen and understand and not judge. Even therapists go to therapists. It’s not always something you can handle with self-help techniques.

  • sara

    June 1st, 2013 at 3:32 AM

    I do have a list, 2 in fact. One to keep myself well, the other for when I feel things sliding. My wellbess list includes regular exercise, daily meditation, gratitude diary and spending time outdoors in the sunshine. My list for heading depression off includes more exercise, talking with a trusted friend, crying on my partners shoulder and sinking into his hugs, doing something pleasurable even if I don’t want to, staying connected with people and getting lost in a good book. If all else fails its off to my therapist. She is a constant but now irregular part of my life. I don’t know where is be without my therapist, my friends, my partner and my bike.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    June 1st, 2013 at 1:21 PM

    Sara, that’s brilliant what you figured out for yourself! I think it’s great idea to have a list for prevention and a list for sliding. Thank you for sharing them!

  • Denyse

    July 12th, 2013 at 3:34 AM

    I have tried reading, watching movies etc which worked for awhile. Going out once a week with girlfriends. I feel better but now I realize if I have friends who need help either a car lift or helping another girlfriend move, this should help!

    I lost my job also and I have cleaned all of my apartment, still do some cooking even though I am not hungry butI am pushing myself all the time while I feel horrible. I’ll go through this no matter what :)
    I am not busy enough in my apartment while others are at work so I have to find other friends that I can help. That should keep me busy while the time needed for my medication to kick in. I Have only been 2 weeks on my anti-depressants and get anxious for them to start working on my humour!

  • Nols

    July 16th, 2013 at 5:07 PM

    Cynthia, thank you so much for this article. I am at a point where I am on new meds,will be starting to see a therapist again after many years and have had to leave my job due to my current inability to function.

    I read this at a time when I am searching for “what to do now”. Often we want to help ourselves but just don’t know where to start. I will try and see what works and if it doesn’t I will try something else.

    Sara, thanks too for your input. Trying what works for others is the starting point for me because I can’t even think for myself clearly right now.

    Denyse, how are you doing now? I am now on my new meds for two weeks and also playing the waiting game. Cleaning is next on my to do list!

  • Becky Weaver

    February 17th, 2014 at 6:45 AM

    I disagree with most of the 5; here’s why:

    1) Staying in bed is the OPPOSITE of what you need (or what ANYONE needs,) IMHO. If you’re tired, TAKE A NAP. You don’t need “days” to journal. Journaling needs to be an ongoing daily thing. This type of thinking should NOT be coddled. It’s disempowering. You can honor yourself by doing what you SHOULD do, not what you WANT to do. That season passed with childhood. Now we are adults. So get up, get dressed, and DEAL WITH THE ISSUES THAT ARE DISEMPOWERING YOU. At least you’ll feel better by day’s end, and tomorrow will be a little more “bearable.”

    2) Exercising can be walking around the block, or riding your bike through the park. When we stop moving, we die. Plain and simple. Make it a part of your daily plan, above how you may feel about it.

    3) There is a season for fantasizing, and it’s not when you’re “depressed.” Do something for others. Find a regular volunteer opportunity – it will lift you up and give you something bigger than yourself to work on – to hope for – to accomplish.

    4) Looking for pleasure – how about just integrating bubble baths, essential oils/candles, beautiful music, journaling, (caring for yourself) into your DAILY regimen?

    I cannot say that looking for pleasure is going to do anything long-term for conquering depression.
    It may work temporarily – for people who rarely take pleasure in the simple things. But as human beings, our soul longs for so much more in life. We strive for deeper meaning, understanding, achievement, love, joy, real friendships, and to really LIVE our lives passionately to the fullest.

    THIS is what needs to be addressed. For the truth is that depression results when we have lost our way, are on the wrong path and finally realize it. You don’t want to smother those feelings with distractions.

    WHAT DO I WANT TO DO WITH MY LIFE? (Make a bucket list!)
    NEVERMIND WHO IS RIGHT, I AM GOING TO FORGIVE ALL. (And do it, releasing outcomes.)

    5) Talking to friends is fine but you don’t want to burden them. Most people don’t have a clue what to say when you tell them you’re depressed. Many will offer bad advice. Or will start to avoid you. So now you’re depressed AND isolated / ostracized.

    On the other hand, mental health professionals often resort to textbook myths like “you have a chemical imbalance in your brain.” If you buy into that, you’ll believe you need a drug to “correct” your brain chemistry. Of course then, they refer you to a shrink to write an Rx for psychotropic drugs. But the drugs WON’T “correct” anything; they will just give you a new set of symptoms.

    At best, a temporary band aid; at worst, a precursor for violent actions that cannot be reversed.
    (All school shootings were done by kids on psychotropic drugs – read the side effects: “suicide”)

    Depression is caused by 3 things:
    1) Disempowerment (real or imagined)

    Disempowerment: You’ve got to introspect: is it an impossible living situation, work situation, a chronic health condition, toxic relationship, or the memory of one?

    Identify the real issue and make an action plan with daily steps to resolve the issue(s.)
    How to resolve it? You have to strengthen your own inner resources. It may seem overwhelming at first, but you have to learn to trust yourself. (And maybe even a higher power.) And forgive yourself for not being perfect. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help change the way you think. Figure out what you need to do to EMPOWER yourself. Forgiving others is very empowering and un-hardens the heart, to allow you to love again. But it must be authentic, and the outcome must be downgraded to a “want,” not a “need.”

    The right nutrition is key. Start reading the labels on the foods you buy. Aspartame, gluten, vegetable oil, most dairy, MSG (disguised as 200 other things,) grain, soy, all GMO’s, and non-organic meat needs to be avoided. Also avoid statin drugs. (they cause Alzheimer’s.) Acetaminophen damages the liver.

    So if you want a permanent cure, get far away from people who are representatives of big Pharm. They mean well, but learned from a textbook – most of which were subsidized by big Pharm. Ask what % of their pay is from drug prescriptions.

    If you want to take something, why not try Sam-e or St. John’s Wort? Those are naturally occurring herbs. Go to a health or herb shop to find out how to detox. There’s an herbal / vitamin supplement out there from Q sciences that gives the brain what it needs to work optimally.

    Our NATURAL STATE IS HAPPINESS. Give yourself what you need and you will be happy, almost “by accident.” Happiness is a natural by-product of a life well-lived.

  • Claire Fleming

    May 9th, 2014 at 11:09 AM

    I agree with the original comment of number 5. I can see what you are saying that you should force yourself to get up and do things but sometimes when your depressed you don’t feel like doing anything and instead of beating yourself up thinking I should be doing this and I should be doing that or actually forcing yourself to get up and do things. By not fighting forward and just doing what your body and mind is telling you to do is in fact what you need to do. Have a bit of time to feel sorry for yourself (not for being depressed but for what is making you feel that way), connect with your spiritual self. I feel that when your depressed that doing this is in fact all part of the healing process. It’s important to listen to your body and give it what it needs as most depression as explained in the original text is about grieving and releasing a unthinkable pain and finding a way to process it. It has to be done within not by outside action. Like procrastinating tasks, by putting your emotional self on hold by doing tasks is in the same way procrastination your emotional and spiritual self.

  • lin

    March 1st, 2014 at 7:52 PM

    Becky, your comment is one of the most helpful things I’ve read in a long time. How did you come about to obtain these opinions regarding depression? I would love to hear more. Thanks for helping me get my mind right tonight.

  • calie

    August 4th, 2014 at 7:54 AM

    To me this list are ways to help prevent depression, not treat it. Depression comes on many levels and is different for everyone. I don’t think there is a “right” way to deal with depression. I agree that the list is helpful but it’s nearly impossible to follow through with when you are severely depressed. I know everyone will disagree with me but I just wanted to put it out there for those of us who feel like worse failures after reading this.

  • Kerry

    October 25th, 2014 at 1:03 AM

    I agree with Calie. When you’re severely depressed you don’t think about how to help yourself up. There are some of us who have permanent depression – for life! Yes, your tips are nice for those people who are able to have some control over their depressed times and I’m glad those people don’t have to live with permanent depression and permanent medication and the occasional period of feeling good. Calie, I also feel like a failure, an imperfect specimen that should not have been allowed to live however that’s not the hand we were dealt. When we’re not struggling to live I believe we have to try and enjoy life for those short periods we can. Calie, just do what you can when you can do it and try to enjoy things where you can. At the other times – that’s our life and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

  • Laine T

    January 4th, 2015 at 8:04 PM

    I listen to my mood. I make sure I get a good night’s sleep. Work is a good diversion. On the weekend I know I have plenty to do or there’s always someone to visit. I’ll go for a hike or walk. If I get to only one item on my list I am content with that.I sometimes write down my thoughts to release them if I don’t feel like talking to anyone. LIstening to healing hypnosis at bed time helps a great deal. It never fails to help me feel better the next day. Reading articles such as this remind me that I’m not alone wIth the feelIngs I have.. Attending a support group and talking with my therapist feels good. I don’t feel guilty for not eating a balanced meal over the weekend.

  • Sonia

    April 14th, 2017 at 3:40 PM

    i have done all these things but nothing worked day by day it feels like im dead and no one cares … bad dreams , woke up early , feeling alone want to die jst these things hunting my mind .. if i try to talk with others about what i feel or what they have done then they don’t even understands. still im on this question what to do

  • Leah

    May 27th, 2020 at 5:36 PM

    Hi plz send me some articles to my email are very intrested

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