Chronic depression is one of those things that can be very difficult to deal with, mostly because those of us who suffer from it exist in two states. When things are fine, we might think that we’ve rounded the bend and things will never be as bad as our last valley again. And then, when we find ourselves descending towards another crash, we have no idea how to stop it or make the cliff feel any less steep. I think most of us have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude towards things that are big problems; when we’re not actively battling our depression, we prefer to forget we have it.
But the fact is that chronic depression is a disease; an invisible one, one whose symptoms might not show up for days or weeks or months, but a disease that most of us will have to cope with for a major part of our lives. When a diabetic has his glucose levels under control, the diabetes isn’t cured — it’s just managed so that the symptoms aren’t making it difficult to function.
I think it’s useful for those of us with mental health issues to think of our illnesses like that. The symptoms might not be bad enough to prevent us from functioning most of the time, but it’s still doing its thing under the surface. There are things that we can do to help ourselves manage it; taking care of ourselves can make depressive episodes less frequent and less severe. I can’t guarantee that we’ll ever be completely free of it, but we can develop a number of coping mechanisms to help.
Learning how to live with depression is a process. Sometimes it might feel like we’re making no progress at all; sometimes it can feel like we’re sliding backwards into our worst places. But it’s important to have patience with the process and with ourselves. There is nothing fundamentally broken about us; there is nothing that we can’t handle. There are just a lot of considerations we must make that most others might take for granted. This can be a gift of practice; learning how to appreciate many aspects of our life that we wouldn’t even notice otherwise.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned to do over the course of several years. You might find that different habits work better for you, and that’s fine. It’s not important to do every single thing that people recommend for you. It’s important to find your own way of managing your mood and getting to a place where you feel comfortable and capable within your own skin. Take my advice, or discard it and forge your own path. But please try. It’s worth it, I promise.
Sleep. This is single biggest piece of advice I would recommend for people dealing with mental illness: sleep well. I can’t overstate the importance of rest in helping yourself to get on a more even keel. If you don’t have a sleep routine, or you’re having issues with getting regular or quality sleep, I really do think this should be a top priority. Sleep allows us to settle our emotions and builds our ability to cope with fluctuations in mood or changes in our environment that would cause anxiety. It is one of the best things we can do to care for ourselves.
Building a good sleep habit takes time and practice. The chemical imbalance that can lead to depression also impairs sleep function, so we end up sleeping too little or too much. However, keeping a regular sleep practice is a great foundation for routine that we can use to help us weather those times. Listen to your body; notice when you start to feel tired or your brain tells you it’s time to get to bed. Notice when you’re most likely to wake up without an alarm clock. If at all possible, build your sleep time around your own circadian rhythm. If it’s not possible, determine when you need to get up and count back nine hours — start getting ready for bed at that time.
It’s not easy, and it’s not quick, but it is effective. Once you’re sleeping regularly, your body can begin the work of stabilizing itself.
Eat well. I know in a lot of situations this can be exceedingly difficult. Even for those of us in the United States, we might live in a food desert where fresh produce or lean meat might be hard to come by. Many of us simply don’t have the money or time to make our own meals. I get it. But making sure we at least eat food that gives us a good balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and fiber will give our body its best shot at managing itself.
If possible, eat three squares a day that includes lean protein, unsaturated fat and complex carbohydrates. Think a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, multigrain chips and fruit. Try to limit caffeine intake after 2 PM; we all know that caffeine plays havoc with the ability to sleep and too much of it will definitely exacerbate anxiety issues. Drink more water, and cut back on sodas and sugary drinks.
You hear this kind of advice all the time, and I know how much of a drag it can be to try and follow through. But it’s definitely important. The better fuel you give your body, the better it will be able to function. That’s the simple fact. And I know that the instant you begin to control your diet it feels like you’re swimming upstream, and we just can’t put in the effort all the time. But try. And keep trying. Notice how you feel — how you really feel — after you eat. Does the food sit heavy in your stomach? Do you feel gassy or bloated? Greasy? Light? Satisfied? Focus on the foods that make you feel good — not just emotionally, but biologically. The more you listen to your body, the more it will tell you what it needs. To be a god-damn hippie about it.
Exercise. I know, I can hear the groaning from here, but trust me — being active when you can really helps. Just going outside or getting the blood flowing helps just about every part of your body, including your brain. When you find the activity that works best for you, your brain learns how to release endorphins that tell you that you’re doing a good job. And again, pushing yourself to pay attention to your body will help you recognize how it speaks to you — how it tells you that it’s in pain, or needs food or water, or what kind of shape or mood it’s in. Learning your body is the first step to being comfortable with it, realizing and accepting its limitation, and appreciating the things you like about it.
Most people think of exercise as a slog; huffing on the street during a grueling run, or sweating through some terrible routine that you can’t begin to keep up with. But it really doesn’t have to be; it can be any activity that gets you moving and makes you happy. For me, it actually IS running. I get a wonderful high and a sense of accomplishment after putting in my miles. But for you, it might be anything from playing tennis, basketball or football to playing Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band on your XBox. If it gets your heart rate up and your body moving, it’s fair game. Do it as regularly as you can without hurting yourself.
Therapy. This is another suggestion that takes on almost limitless forms. For you, it might be therapeutic to write your feelings down in a journal or talk to the spiritual leader of your congregation. It might be reading, walking in nature, talking to a therapist or taking medication. Whatever works for you, seek it out and do it; develop a self-care routine, arm yourself with coping mechanisms, engage with the world and community around you however you see fit.
Again, I understand how difficult this might be for some of us. We might live in places where mental health professionals are hard to find or prohibitively expensive; we might not have access to an understanding or capable support network; we might not know where to begin to develop a framework of self-care. But if you’re reading this, you probably have access to the Internet and that gives you a leg up. Research things that might help you and try them out; describe the results when you use them, and determine if it would be useful to keep doing them. Seek out communities online if you can — there are a number of websites and forums for those of us dealing with depression and anxiety. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Try.
Sleeping regularly, eating as well as you can, doing active things you find enjoyable and engaging in a therapeutic practice are all basic things we could all do to help stabilize our mood as much as possible. Again, these are a lot easier said than done for many of us, but please — do what you can when you can. Seek out help and support where you can find it. And keep trying. What helped me most with my depression is seeing it for what it is. It allowed me to engage with it, really understand it. And by doing that, I understood myself a lot better. Self-awareness is perhaps the most powerful tool we have against our mental illness. It helps us learn how to cope with it and to live happy, full lives even while we struggle.
If you have depression, anxiety or another mental illness difficult to endure and tough to make people understand, I see you. I’m with you. I want to help. And I’m not the only one.
But the best way to get help is to help yourself. We can support you, but we can’t “fix” you. There’s nothing to be fixed. You’re a human being, wonderful and complete just as you are. You deserve to live, to be happy, to be loved. For people like you and me, it takes more work and care. But it makes the results of that work so much sweeter.